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Use a System to Arrive at Better Outcomes from Difficult Conversations

May 2, 2017


Who looks forward to difficult conversations with their managers and employees? Probably not most well-adjusted individuals. At the same time, how necessary is it for leaders and managers to have difficult conversations with their employees and direct-reports? I’m guessing it’s important, necessary and frequent. Unfortunately, all too many managers and leaders either have these conversations as harsh interactions that don’t end well, or avoid them, as the unpleasantness is just no fun.


Let’s consider a “problem impact” formula that we can call the 10x10 = 100 equation. The first 10 represents the 10% of a problem that I as a leader observe with one of my people. In other words, I am seeing part of the problem, but not the WHOLE problem. It’s not paranoia for a leader to lie awake at night wondering…” if I saw that ‘x’ is not being paid attention too, what else are they not minding?”


The next 10 in the equation represents my fear as a leader or manager in confronting the problem  - as in, my fear of the confrontation could be 10x greater than the degree of discomfort that I and my employee will actually have to work through in confronting it. We know this as we have difficult conversations every day and every week that we can’t even remember even a day or one week later.


The 100 number in the equation represents the potential number of days that it could take me, as a leader or manager to actually address it, deal with it and rectify it completely. How many times have you observed a manager who was avoiding a problem only to finally deal with it, months later when the answer was obvious to you, two or three months before hand?


So how can we arm our organization’s leadership and managers with the tools and skills to tackle tough conversations straight on and without hesitation. Of course, an individual’s communication style plays heavily into their willingness and ability to undertake a conversation like this. However, as with most things in your business, by putting a SYSTEM in place for having difficult conversations, your manager can rely on the system instead of “winging it,” or, altogether avoiding it.


Your organization may want to get HR’s buy-in on this technique and perhaps they’ll have some great ideas on how to tailor it for your organization. The simple four-step system follows four verbal cues to tee up each component of the conversation, like this: Step 1 – “I feel that.” Step 2 – “For Example.” Step 3 – “What I need from you.” Step 4 – “As a result.”


Here’s what it might sound like as a real conversation: “Bill, I feel that your struggling with embracing the new ERP system we invested in last year. For example, you’re still doing order reconciliations in Excel, outside of the software and not only are they inaccurate, they’re taking twice as long to do manually. What I need from you is to embrace the new system and start learning how to do the reporting immediately using it. We can have Janice work with you on learning to use the automated report feature or even set-up a training session with the vendor to help you learn how to use the system. As a result, we’ll have more accurate reports and you’ll save time that will free you up to work on the new inventory tracking system that you committed to working on.”


Most leaders would rightly expect that Bill may not just acquiesce and fall into line on learning the new ERP software. But what will happen is that Bill and his manager will now have a dialogue based on the managers clearly communicated gap in performance and expected change in behavior to close the gap. In fact, if the manager is strong, they may even script out the difficult conversation four components to be sure they are clear with Bill.


When it comes to difficult conversations, are your leaders and managers wining it, avoiding it altogether, or do they default to using a system for more predictable and desirable outcomes?


For the free whitepaper, Six Ways to Be a More Effective Manager Whitepaper - contact Bob Bolak at . Bob Bolak is President/CEO of Sandler Training in the Greater Denver Area. As an accomplished leadership, management, customer service and sales consultant and trainer, he brings two and half decades of leadership, management and sales experience to the table, with a consistent track record of double and triple digit revenue and profit increases. Sandler Training has authored over two dozen books on effective leadership, management, customer service and sales.


Bob can be reached at


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