Anyone who is leading others quickly realizes that effective communication is one of the most important and most difficult skills to practice. Yet having constructive conversations with your team members on a regular basis is key to supporting their (and your) professional growth and is absolutely essential to achieving long-term results.
It can be challenging to have that difficult conversation that you have been putting off, but it can be equally challenging to remember to share affirming feedback on a regular basis. All of this takes practice and making time in your schedule for this practice will make you a stronger and more effective leader.
Focus on approaching conversations with a new team member who is also new to their role. Their needs are different from those of an employee you have worked with for a couple of years and who is therefore familiar with their role. While many managers make the mistake of applying the same leadership and communication style to each situation, it is important to adjust your approach taking the differing needs of these team members into account.
Sharing information about their role and offering directives on how to proceed are necessary to hold constructive conversations with new employees. New hires are usually excited to prove themselves and are highly motivated. They don’t need you to shower them with praise, although affirming work well done will help steer them in the right direction.
New employees need to be closely supervised while they are getting familiar with the job. It is helpful to give them specific examples of what good work looks like. Avoid generalizing or commenting on every aspect of work. Instead, focus on correcting bad work and offering encouragement when good work is done. This may feel like micromanaging to an experienced employee, but it will be welcomed by a new employee.
This is one of the fine points of having constructive conversations. It isn’t something you learn to do and then apply to your whole team equally. It pays off to tailor your approach based on the needs of each team member. I might start losing employees who are experienced in any given role if I give them too many directives as they will start to feel micromanaged and undervalued.
However, a new relationship with a new employee will most likely need a high degree of directives and getting into the weeds. Too much freedom will create confusion for new hires with less experience.
Ultimately, having constructive conversations takes practice and the best way to ensure you will practice them is to make them as simple as possible.
Key points to consider and some to put into practice:
Ask your direct reports how they like to communicate
Imagine if your boss asked you early on how you prefer to communicate. In person? Email? For most employees, it shows a consideration that would be appreciated. It also ensures that, assuming you do adjust to their communication style, that you are more likely to communicate effectively with your team.
Of course there is a give and take here, but the default of the leader only using the communication style that works best for them opens up the likelihood of missed communications within the team.
Remember: You are not paid to be right. You are paid to achieve results.
This needs to be its own post, but I can briefly share some thoughts on this here as it definitely applies. When I am having a tough conversation with a direct (or anyone really) and feel that I am right I try to check myself. I ask myself “What result am I trying to get in this conversation and what step do I need to take to get that result?”. The answer is almost never to prove myself to be right.
Especially in a leadership position one can feel that the team expects you to always be right and that not being right may be a weakness. But showing humility here can go a long way in earning trust. And proving someone else wrong does little to build relationships.
Conversations don’t need to be long to be effective.
Do your best to make challenging conversations brief.
Use starter sentences to keep it simple for you and predictable for your directs.
Depending on the context, I have a list of starter sentences that helps me set up a conversation for success. For example, in my one-on-one with my directs I always start by saying “What’s up?”. This question is very open-ended and lets them take the lead in the conversation.
When I know someone is in distress I ask “How are you?” rather than “What happened?” as it communicates that I put them first and care about how they feel. By having some starter sentences on hand it takes the pressure off of me and makes it more likely I will enter into the challenging conversation and to do it successfully.
Let your team know how you intend to communicate.
Either email or explain in person what your management techniques are. I let my team know my starter sentences, for example. They know I will ask “Is now an ok time for feedback?” prior to giving corrective feedback.
They know to expect an email recap when I delegate projects or tasks.
This means be patient with your team - learning takes time, sometimes years. Also be patient with yourself. You will get communications wrong your whole life. The best we can do is to get better and better at it. We will never be perfect.
If you normally ask 3 questions to understand a problem, ask 8 instead. Do you know the names of the families of your direct reports? That’s most likely the most important thing in the world to them.
Show some interest. Ask how they solved particular problems. It will help you to grow and will help your employees feel that you care.
We are emotional beings. Because we are emotional, communications are way messier than we tend to think. By following any of the suggestions above, you may be able to have constructive discussions that will ultimately help you achieve success and keep your employees happy.