Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am a relatively new supervisor, and several of my former peers are now my direct reports. One has been with the company for twenty-five years and her attitude has become increasingly combative. She questions almost everything I tell or ask of her, she is very negative about company policies, and she makes comments in front of other employees that undermine my authority and the company. My managers think she is detrimental to our entire department, but I am trying to save her job because I think she would be hard to replace.
It has become increasingly difficult for me to have conversations with her and I end up avoiding these conversations as much as possible. How do I turn this situation around?
This conversation could eventually lead to the other person being disciplined in one way or another. While I know you’ll do your best to not go down that path too quickly, you have to be prepared for the worst. How you’re supposed to handle performance problems within your company—including the disciplinary steps you need to follow—is often formalized. That means the formalized steps need to be carefully followed if you expect to be supported by HR, your boss, the legal department, and the company.
Why worry? For years I have watched as well-intended supervisors have stepped up to a performance challenge, done their best to hold a crucial conversation, and ended by disciplining an employee. Then the supervisors learn that they should have first given a verbal warning before putting a letter in the employee’s file or provided a written warning before putting the person on probation, etc. Now the supervisor is in trouble with HR and needs to go back and reverse the proposed disciplinary step.
I’ve even seen a supervisor fire someone only to be forced by the legal department to bring the employee back to work (complete with back pay) because the supervisor didn’t follow the formal disciplinary process. This is not only discouraging to the supervisor, who has done his or her best to fulfill the responsibility of holding others accountable, but completely undermines his or her authority and puts the relationship at risk.
So the first step in starting a conversation that might lead to discipline is to know the formal disciplinary process your company follows. A simple conversation with an HR specialist (as well as a heads-up to your own boss) should be enough to teach you all you need to know. If your company does not have a formal process in place, consider the following guidelines. Catch problems early, before they get out of control. Always remain calm and respectful. Otherwise, the attention will soon be on you and how you became abusive during the discussion. Be crystal clear about the infraction itself and both the short- and long-term implications if the person doesn’t change. Far too many people leave a performance discussion (1) unclear about what they need to do differently and (2) unaware that if they don’t change there will be repercussions.
Here are a few tips for holding that conversation.
First, set aside time to talk in private about an issue that has you concerned. Start the conversation with a statement of your good intentions, but one that also conveys the severity of the situation. “Today I’d like to discuss a problem I’ve noticed over the past few weeks. I want to solve it before it becomes more serious. I hope to come to a resolution that works for both of us.”
Next, pick one or two of the problems from the variety you’ve suggested. You described the problem with short-hand terms such as “negative,” “detrimental,” and “combative.” These words, of course, are both inflammatory and vague. The listener isn’t likely to know what she has actually done, but is likely to be insulted by your unflattering characterization. Think about the specific behaviors you want her to change. Pick the actions you care the most about, not the ones that may be easiest to address. Don’t sell out by choosing the wrong behavior or back down by candy coating your description.
Now practice. Describe the actions you most care about to a friend or confidant. See if your friend understands the meaning of your words. Describe actions not conclusions. For instance, “Last week you suggested that our new cost-cutting plan was stupid and when I tried to explain why I thought it might work you rolled your eyes and called me naïve.” This clear description helps the person know exactly what you want to see change. Contrast this clear explanation with “You’re disruptive in meetings,” or “You’re constantly negative.” Inflammatory conclusions offend instead of inform.
Next, stop and ask the other person if she understands the issue. Don’t keep piling on new problems. Deal with one issue at a time. Since the problem you described is now big enough that your own boss wants to let the person go, you must also explain the disciplinary steps you’ll take if the person doesn’t change. Even if the person has already agreed to comply, explain that you’re glad she is willing to change, because if not, you’ll take the following disciplinary action. Since this isn’t the first infraction, and discipline may follow, you can’t leave out this information. Don’t phrase it as a threat, simply describe the reality.
This should be enough to get you started. I commend your willingness to actually work on the problem rather than simply let it slide or let the person go.