I cannot count the number of times I’ve had a leader enter my office and declare that they’re fed up with a certain team member and would I fire that person, please? This declaration often surprises me, as the leader never mentioned any challenges with that person before. When I pull the file on the team member in question, I notice that they’ve received glowing praise in the last several performance evaluations.

When I bring this to the leader’s attention, I get a sheepish, “Well, I was just trying to encourage them with those evaluations. I’ve been having these problems with this person for years. They should know better. It’s just common sense!” This is usually when I open the topic about difficult discussions.

Honestly, there are as many definitions of what common sense is as there are people on the planet. We often expect people to simply know what we expect. Now, I can go into the whole HR thing about writing job descriptions or having a formal performance evaluation system, but I’ll save those for another article. Today I will simply talk about talking and handling difficult discussions. Sounds easy, right?

Identify the problem

Performance issues run the gamut from the serious to the not-so-serious. If someone arrives to work a few minutes late occasionally, it’s usually not a big deal. But if it becomes chronic and starts to impact your business operations, you have a problem. Or perhaps it’s more serious, such as not meeting deadlines or productivity standards. These problems may also cause a decrease in the strength of the workplace culture. Whatever the challenge, it’s time for heart-to-heart, difficult discussions to take place.

Schedule some time with your team member. Find a private place or, if that’s not possible, perhaps take a walk. You want to start the difficult discussions on a positive note. Remember, there are 8,953 ways to deliver a message. It’s your choice to select one of the kind ways. Ask something like, “I notice that you’ve been arriving late several mornings in the last week. Will you tell me more about that?” You’ll notice that’s an open-ended question – one that requires more than a yes or no answer.

Listen with empathy

After you ask, the next step is to listen. That’s right. Keep your mouth closed and your ears opened. If there is trust in your relationship, your team member might tell you about changes in their personal life. Maybe sleep has become suddenly difficult, a spouse’s work schedule has changed, or they’ve simply hit the snooze button too many times.

After you listen, use empathy to reflect what you heard. This helps ensure that you understood what you were told and helps your team member feel confident that you were really listening. “It sounds like your home life is a little upside down as your family adjusts to your spouse’s new schedule. Change is difficult and makes me exhausted. Is that how you feel?” This then gives your team member the chance to either agree with your assessment or to clarify their feelings. Either way, your team member now feels heard AND understood.

Create the solution

At this point, it’s time to come up with a plan together with your team member. Maybe they need to work with their family to get out the door a few minutes earlier. Maybe you can put a later arrival time on the schedule for another week to give their family a little more time to adjust. Or maybe they just need to feel appreciated in the workplace?

Before you end that meeting, schedule a follow-up meeting so that you can both monitor the situation. Depending on the challenge, you may consider additional follow-up meetings. Daily, weekly, bi-weekly – whatever it takes to address the situation and give your team member the chance to succeed.

Remember, ask the question, listen to the answer, reflect what you understood with empathy, create a plan with feedback from your team member, then follow-up as many times as you need to. You’ve spent a lot of time recruiting and training your team members. You and, ultimately, your business will reap the rewards of any extra effort you spend cultivating those relationships.

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