I’m currently in the process of working with a bunch of Leader-Managers who struggle to engage with each other in conversations which some call ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’. It has been useful for me to remember that there are two strands to this phenomenon: the cultural and the personal. Just as a ladder has two main rails connected by steps or rungs, if one rail is missing or faulty, the ladder fails to serve its purpose. Similarly, if either the cultural or the personal strands of ‘challenging conversations’ is absent or underdeveloped, the organisation may well find that there are a whole bunch of conversations that are just not being had.
When crafting a learning programme to address this phenomenon, it is therefore essential to address both the cultural and the personal. Send someone off to a workshop to develop the skills within themselves and put them back into an organisational system that does not support these conversations or acts to undermine Managers who try to have them, and what you may see is a Manager who grows increasingly frustrated with the ‘system’. These Managers may decide that it’s not worth trying to have performance conversations because they only end up looking like the office ogre; and nothing much changes. The conversations don’t get had; performance issues remain unaddressed and eventually snowball until they become personal; and HR (or the CEO) who sent the Manager on the workshop wonders why they bother to invest in training because “nothing ever really changes”, amplifying the cynicism that exists in some quarters about Learning and Development.
Alternatively, you could invest in some sort of ‘culture change process’ that highlights the need for the organisation to shift its thinking around performance conversations. This may result in people becoming excited about new possibilities. They now see that being ‘people friendly’ and ‘performance oriented’ are not mutually exclusive. They become hopeful that things will finally change around the place as all those poor performers will FINALLY get a good talking-to. Without attending to the ‘personal’ strand, however, you may find that there are a number of Managers who lack the capability to challenge their staff, their peers or their own bosses without damaging working relationships. Growing a culture that affirms performance conversations is not, after all, a green light for a no-holds-barred free-for-all 1970s style encounter group where you just tell everyone what you think without being aware of the consequences. Without addressing the personal, you may also find that there are still some Managers who beat around the bush so much because of their own internal ‘stuff’ that people are left wondering what point they are trying to make.
An effective programme is one where both the cultural and the personal are addressed. It can be easier to start with the cultural, simply because the things that influence someone’s ability to have these conversations inevitably involves emotions such as fear or disappointment, and starting with the bigger picture can defuse any hijacking of what should be a constructive analysis of the phenomenon. Get a group of Manager-Leaders to discuss questions such as:
- How often do we all challenge others in this organisation?
- What determines how often we do this?
- What are some barriers to this happening?
- What makes it easy for this to happen?
- What would need to change in our organisational culture in order for these conversations to happen more frequently and effectively?
Starting off with the big picture depersonalises the issue from any one Manager or group of Managers and also can uncover the fact that many folks struggle with similar things. This can also warm people up to taking the next step, which is to look at the more personal aspects. These are the things which each person can develop in themselves. An effective programme, when focussing on this strand, will incorporate experiential techniques that coach Leader-Managers to practise new behaviours and to integrate them in such a way that they become part of their repertoire of responses to people.
Addressing the organisational culture as well as the personal capabilities of each Leader-Manager, therefore, is essential if your investment is to pay dividends. Taking such a systemic approach will also require time and patience in order for the shifts to embed and for the improvements in performance, staff retention and teamwork to filter through, but filter through they will.