Difficult Conversations Series Part II (Subordinates)—Improve Morale, Boost Productivity, and Encourage The Right Employee Retention with Simple Steps to Managing the Dialogue in Addressing & Overcoming Subordinate Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges

Confronting & Conveying Problems To Subordinates

Are you a team leader or a boss? If so, you’re tasked with the responsibility of supervising others, and in most cases, you are prepared to do so. But when things go wrong, you are the one who must answer; it’s you that takes the fall for the botched report, sales slump, or missed deadline. And since you make the ‘big bucks’, sometimes your team or staff isn’t quick to feel guilty or try to see things from a broader perspective. So, it’s up to you to set things straight. 

While teamwork is great, it’s only enjoyable when every member of the team contributes to the team’s success. But that’s not always the case. There are occasions when team leaders, supervisors, or people in any specialized or temporary leadership positions are forced to resort to being strict with their staff or team members just to get them to function as expected. Of course, this isn’t fun for either party: the leader doing the talking or the subordinate doing the listening. Leaders can appear disgruntled and high-handed. Subordinates can appear incompetent and irresponsible. But a close look at research reveals that leaders must be stern or risk being disrespected and taken for granted by unruly subordinates. Evidently, superiors are not the only ones who can be demanding.

For those in leadership positions, difficult conversations with subordinates are primarily focused on performance and crisis control. Leaders must make hard decisions to keep things moving forward; to accomplish this, they must confront problems head on. Having tough conversations could either mar or mold a great relationship with your subordinate. But to handle them, here’s what you need to know:

Schedule a Meeting

Depending on your rapport with your subordinate, you might not find it easy to engage in casual conversations. Perhaps the work environment or facility is not conducive to ‘meeting on their turf’ in an effective manner. Hence, what do you do? 

Set the tone and schedule an official meeting with a stated purpose or agenda. This indicates a clear level of seriousness towards, which then gives you both adequate time to prepare. 

You must gather the facts regarding the issue you need to discuss. Don’t rely on hearsay, rumors, or conjecture. You are the superior and you need to come to the meeting with proof. If it’s an issue of performance, then procure the trackable data as compared to any agreed upon original expectation. You look silly scolding if there was no definite standard the employee was asked to meet. If it’s an internal issue, you might need to gather the surface facts and then look for more based on your conversation with affected subordinates. Gathering your facts helps you to stay coordinated throughout your conversation and ensures that you don’t stray into sympathetic topics. 

Ask Questions

As a leader, you most likely have all the facts at your disposal. But how do you use such facts in handling a difficult conversation? Take for instance a subordinate who hasn’t been performing well for some time. Most people are generally defensive towards criticism. Even though your facts are accurate, slamming them down isn’t the best way to yield positive results from a conversation.

For starters, you could engage in reverse psychology by asking your subordinate to grade himself/herself. This works well because you position your subordinate in a tight corner where he/she would have no choice but to be sincere with you and view her performance from an outside perspective. Although some staff may try to dodge your inquiries, leave them to their devices. Allow them to grade themselves, and then compare their words with your own data. A sincere subordinate would tell the truth and might even go as far as promising to do better without any prompt from you. Then you, in essence, didn’t even have to bring up any negative facts. 

But when you must deal with an insincere subordinate, give her/him the benefit of a doubt to explain. A very common tactic poor performing employees attempt to engage in is to deflect responsibility by rationalizing or blaming others. Let them speak. Depending on the results of your inquiries, you can ‘call their bluff’ or ‘call them out’ with the actual data you have. You don’t need to be hostile or condescending. Simply show them the proof and ask them how they would reconcile the hard facts with their explanation. Ask them how they can better demonstrate their ‘real’ efforts to be reflective in the data you have. Ask them if they believe the mechanisms in place to measure performance are fair and all inclusive, and what they would add, remove, or adjust. By refraining from attacking in the form of asking questions, you are giving them the opportunity to work out for themselves the real reasons why they are falling short and in their own words. Then, action plans can be made and implemented according to their own thought processes, almost guaranteeing they will comply.  

What’s more? Asking questions to the entire affected department or team allows you to gather facts and understand other perspectives on existing issues. A manager cannot objectively determine what’s affecting his/her subordinates without getting their own input. Think of it as an opinion poll – it could even be an anonymous poll. Your subordinates would feel free enough to talk about pressing issues, especially those affecting productivity. And from the responses you receive, you can get a clearer, more comprehensive picture of all the contributing factors. 

Act Like a Boss

In the end, you’re the one who has to make the tough choices. You need to command respect and obedience. This is a job not a social calling. People are expected to do their job in exchange for a salary. They are being paid to be here. They are not doing you a favor. When a subordinate has no genuine reason for misbehaving, you might give them a grace period to act properly. But when misbehavior and unproductivity continue, don’t hesitate to discipline or lay off an unrepentant subordinate. You need to send the right message to others. 

As a boss, it is also your responsibility to reiterate the goals of your team or department. Let your subordinates be clear on goals and what’s expected of them. Chances are that the lack of productivity and internal grievances are a result of a lack of understanding of team or departmental goals. Sometimes, the milestones of a particular job, project, or directive are more well-defined than the end goal. Sometimes, parts of the ‘machine’ don’t understand how their performance affects the ‘machine’ as a whole. Remember, the mark of leadership is not only in being able to communicate your vision but also in making the tough calls when that vision is being compromised. 

 Last Words

Respect begins from within. As a leader, there’s a chance your staff might want to test the limits of your patience and resolve. At times, it is an unintentional disregard for authority; at times, it can be an intentional undermining of your authority. Ensure that you deal patiently with your subordinates while making it clear that you would not tolerate baseless shortcomings. 

When faced with a crisis, gather your facts and make inquiries. Test the sincerity of your subordinates, and most importantly act like the boss that you are. You’re a leader who must command respect, which just won’t happen if you try to please everyone. In the same vein, the earlier you shut out sentiment and emotion, the faster you can deal with harmful and snowballing employee issues. When you fail to act promptly, you allow the situation to become worse – don’t let that happen.

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