I once worked with a manager who never gave his staff realistic annual performance reviews. Everyone was apparently performing equally well.
Eventually problems began to surface, so the director of HR sat down with him to find out why he hadn't flagged up issues in good time. He claimed that he found it hard to find the right words – "I don't find these conversations easy".
The company invited him and several others to a communications workshop, so that they could become more comfortable handling such difficult conversations.
It didn't help. The next year, his team again received glowing appraisals, across the board.
When we probed more deeply, it turned out that 'how to handle difficult conversations' wasn't really the barrier for this individual.
He was worried that if he told his team the truth, some of them would get so angry and upset that they'd leave the business. This was in an industry where recruitment was very difficult, so the manager was sure he wouldn't be able to replace people who left.
That would leave the team missing its targets, and he would be held accountable.
Over the past few weeks, you may have come across this problem – lack of honest feedback – as your own people complete their end-of-year discussions. Very often, our instinct is to help them find the right words to use.
But in my experience, working on communication skills is only ever part of the answer. First, we need to uncover the real, deeper reasons they are afraid of giving honest feedback.
Many leaders are justifiably worried that by telling the truth, they will provoke unwelcome results.
Sometimes that is confined to the meeting. Perhaps they think the other person might end up crying, become angry, or clam up and not say anything.
Other times it goes much deeper than that. Once a manager told me that if he gave one of his team the review she deserved, he was sure she'd turn the whole team against him and he'd lose control of the department.
If you have that hidden fear, no amount of communications training is going to get you to give honest feedback.
It's not always easy for HR to uncover exactly what's going on. Your leaders don't always feel they can be totally open with HR because it's part of 'the system'. And perhaps because they are so used to handling people, HR managers can sometimes not fully appreciate how difficult it can be for a boss to tell someone who works for them that they're performing badly. At least I didn't, when I was in HR.
Unfortunately, the problem can't be addressed head-on by asking, "What's your fear?"
That sounds as if you want them to admit to a personal failing, which naturally they don't want to do.
But there are ways to probe deeper. Sometimes this can even be done in groups, where your leadership team discusses the risks and fears of delivering feedback.
Here at CommsMasters, we've developed an exploration process which we use to understand what's really stopping people from giving the honest feedback that's central to proper performance reviews – and then help them overcome their fears.
This process consists of a confidential questionnaire that individuals complete, along with group reviews of the results. It goes beyond understanding the interaction between the individuals involved, into understanding the wider environmental factors at play.
It certainly worked with the manager I talked about at the beginning of this email. He now has the confidence to give an honest review to team members when they need it, without being hindered by the fear that they might leave the company because of it.
What's more, once he confronted that fear, we were able to help him learn to handle any type of difficult conversation, so that giving feedback to his staff became a routine, non-scary event. As a result, his team is functioning much more smoothly on a day-to-day basis.
If you think that getting a deeper understanding of the barriers to honest conversations might benefit your managers, contact CommsMasters and let's talk. I'd be delighted to tell you more about it.
[Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]