Difficult Conversations

October 1, 2018

Difficult Conversations

Prior studies have demonstrated a majority of managers in Australia shy away from having difficult conversations with employees.  They view performance management with trepidation; as something to be feared.  And now we know why.  Many managers dislike giving negative feedback because they, too, dislike receiving it about themselves.

In fresh research published in the Journal of Business Psychology, 100 manager-employee relationships were examined across a range of professions such as sales, education, health, IT and finance.  The unambiguous conclusion is that managers are generally better skilled at having difficult conversations with employees, during which negative feedback is conveyed, only when they’re comfortable in similar situations with their own managers.

Since they themselves value such feedback and understand how critical it is for behavioural change, they’re “more inclined to provide high-quality feedback to subordinates in a thoughtful, empathic manner”.  They’re consequently able to engage in what’s known as cognitive reappraisal, which is when they deliver negative feedback in a way that’s fair, rational and objective, thereby minimising any risk of an emotional or distressed reaction.

In other words, having a difficult conversation stops being a confronting, uncomfortable and awkward experience, and instead turns into an opportunity to have an authentic discussion premised on learning and reflection.  The experience becomes an interaction to be valued than a situation to be avoided.

So how can you shift your own feedback orientation?  Empirically proven examples include:

  • That you actively seek constructive feedback from your own manager.
  • That you view feedback as essential for your personal development.
  • That you reflect on feedback on a cognitive level, not an emotional one.
  • That you feel accountable to act on feedback once you receive it.
  • That you’re sensitive to the perceptions others have of you.
  • That you strive for greater self-awareness and self-enhancement.

Of course, those principles apply not just to you but also to your employees.  It’s just that they’re more likely to adopt them if they witness you being the first to lead by example.