September 09, 2014 | Drs. Christine Wilson and John Foltz
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Having Tough Conversations to Improve Your Business

Tactics and strategies for critical conversations with your employees

Having Tough Conversations to Improve Your Business
Image by jppi (morgueFile)

Good leaders have several important skills and characteristics. We have discussed many of these skills and characteristics in our column over the past several years. In this issue we want to focus on the important leadership skill of communications, and more specifically on communications that might be termed “difficult and tough” conversations.

You may already be tensing up and dreading this column. Just the thought of a sensitive and potentially unpleasant situation creates terror in you. It is even worse considering the concept of actually discussing and talking through a contentious issue!

You might tell yourself that surely a particular issue was just a one-time occurrence or that it will go away in time without having to say or do anything about it. Take a deep breath, strap in tightly, and stick with us! We intend to inspire and motivate you to handle these situations and have those tough conversations. When we are finished, you may still not look forward to situations involving difficult conversations, but we think you might feel better about your ability to handle them and the important need and responsibility as a feed and grain manager to do so.

Sometimes you have to tick someone off

“Being responsible means sometimes pissing people off,” said retired four-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. What Powell is talking about is that as a leader, it is your responsibility to do the hard, and sometimes unpleasant, activities involved in being a real leader, including addressing sensitive subjects through communication. To not address these topics only harms you, your organization and others. Powell further says, “Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It’s inevitable, if you’re honorable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on dif­ferential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get any­one mad, and by treating everyone equally ‘nicely’ regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.”

Take good note of the italicized words in the last quote — they are important — if you weren’t motivated by us to make those tough choices and have those tough conversations, hopefully, you are motivated by Powell and his words on the significance and importance of doing so! Let’s take some time to examine having and managing dif­ficult and crucial conversations so that you can do your best for your entire feed and grain business.

What are some uncomfortable situations or behaviors that you might have to confront with pro­fessional feedback as a manager? One might be inappropriate dress for any particular office or business situation or even unprofessional office attire. Another might relate to attire or behavior that creates unsafe situations in the work environment. Cute, strappy, open-toed sandals are stylish, but not ideal for working in the feed mill. Hard hats and pro­tective eyewear are important and necessary protective items that some employees may not like or under­stand their importance. If you are in a more formal office environment, button-down or collared shirts that are tucked in and ironed khakis and skirts of appropriate length might be the dress code that the business requires rather than tee-shirts or even untucked shirts and wrinkled, or worse, holey khakis or jeans.

Inappropriate or vulgar language and conversations are other unpro­fessional behaviors that need a con­versation that may be uncomfortable to conduct.

You might even have to have a conversation about food and shared-space and resource issues in the office. Do people clean up after themselves in the break room and after using the microwave, do they refill the office coffee pot when they empty it taking the last drop?

Some of these might seem trivial, but if not addressed they can lead to a culture of poor behavior and contempt in the office, and this can reflect poorly on your business and also on you as a manager with the customers that visit your office as well as with other employees.

Bigger issues that you may encoun­ter are an employee asking for a raise, an employee bringing concerns about the performance of another employee to you, an employee bringing com­plaints about the behavior of another employee to you, and an excellent employee telling you that she/he is thinking of leaving for another job. Do any of these situations sound familiar to you? What are some oth­ers that you have encountered? How did you handle them? Did you get the outcome you wanted?

Tactics to use and to avoid

Often our first instinct when con­fronted with a crucial moment or situation is to remain silent and do nothing. You don’t want to make a bigger issue of something than it might really be, or you don’t want to make the other person mad. Remember, it is important to hold people accountable and not speaking up is not holding people accountable. The key to doing this successfully, as with so many other activities, is in the communication approach and manner that you use. Your success teeters on whether or not you are able to create a dialogue in which all of the relevant infor­mation and its meaning from you and the other person or persons is shared. In creating the dialogue, you will want to speak persuasively but not harshly, listen intently, and be empathetic. Remember that listening and showing empathy are two key leadership skills of successful managers. First, there may never be a perfect time to hold a difficult conversation. So, it is best to not procrastinate or delay. Instead, just do it — you make it happen. In doing this though, it will help to frame the meeting in a nonthreatening way by request­ing and scheduling a time to meet to discuss a sensitive matter or to provide some feedback. Of course, this likely creates some tension and nervousness, but it also removes the shock or surprise and allows some time for reflection and preparation.

As you begin your dialogue,  remember to consider what is going on with the other party as you talk. Not only might this be an uncomfort­able situation for you, but it is likely uncomfortable for them, as well. Try to initiate the conversation with a more soft than harsh entry statement to give the person the opportunity to better prepare for the feedback and to reduce the probability of creating a combative situation. During your conversation, be straightforward, but be careful to not downplay or oversimplify the issue such that the other person ends up not giving it sufficient attention. It is important to provide the other person with context because you want them to understand the importance of the issue and the impact of changing or not changing their behavior. Again, be cognizant of the other person’s needs, listen and react by remaining civil and not becoming combative. Your blood pressure may be skyrocketing, but you will only escalate the situation and not get the desired outcome if you resort to combative, threatening or accusatory language or if you resort to silence and shut down. The other person may be using these ploys, but it is your responsibility to address these reactive negative ploys from them with a productive approach, again in order to reach the outcome that you want.

The most productive approach is to directly address the ploy by call­ing it out. For example, if the other person has stopped talking and participating in the conversation, simply state that you do not know how to interpret their silence. This lets them know that you recognize what they are doing, and that you are going to bring them back into the conversation. If they are being overly hostile, simply state that you do not understand their hostility and how it can help resolve the initial issue. Again, you have pointed out that you recognize their behavior and feelings, and that you are going to remain focused on achieving a desired outcome.

As you are in the situation and all of these things are going on around you, keep your eye on the goal — that is the outcome that you set out to achieve when requesting the meeting. When you keep yourself focused on your desired outcome, then you are less likely to fall into a negative ploy by the other person who veers you off course. Another key point is to consciously work to not be drawn into anger or argument in your difficult conversation. This takes significant self-control but can be done. Work hard at not escalating the situation, and you will find the outcome to be more desirable.

 While it is important for you to be prepared for a difficult conversation, you probably do not want to rehearse for it. Rather than rehearsing what you will say, instead work through the communication approaches to use to successfully reach your desired outcome. Also prepare by thinking through the important questions for the situation. What is the problem that needs to be addressed? What will the other person say the problem is? What is the outcome that I want? What working relationship do I want with the other person? While you may find not “rehearsing” to be a use­ful tactic, you might find it helpful to jot down a number of key statements that you want to make, to make sure they are covered.

During the conversation, keep in mind what you can say and how you can say it to help the other person. Do not assume that you understand their intentions or behavior. Instead, state facts about behavior and ask for their perspective on the matter.

The book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, discusses what these authors call four power listening tools for getting others to speak more openly in a difficult conversation. They call these tools AMPP, representing Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase and Prime. The tools are: Ask to get things rolling; Mirror to confirm feelings; Paraphrase to acknowledge the story; Prime when you’re getting nowhere.

  1. Ask includes questions and statements like: “What do you mean? What is going on? I would like to hear your con­cerns. I would like to hear your opinion on this. Let me know if you see it differently.”
  2. Mirror is to describe how the other person looks or acts, and how they look or act may be dif­ferent from what they say. For example Mirror statements are: “You seem angry at me. You don’t sound fine. You say you are OK but the tone of your voice suggests that you are upset.”
  3. Paraphrase is to repeat back what you think you have heard the other person say in your own words. For example, “What I have heard you say is that you are upset because…” Or, “Let’s see if I understand correctly; you are upset because…”
  4. Prime is a tool to use when you think the other person still has more to say but is still holding back. This involves using your best guess at what the other person is thinking and putting it out there to talk about. For example, “Are you thinking …” Once you get the other person or persons to share their thoughts, then you can move the conversation forward to address the issue and reach an outcome.

And the point is?

The point of the difficult conversation is to create a change and achieve a desired outcome. So, make sure that you do this. You need to mutually reach an agreement for change during the conversation. You also want to set and be clear on a time frame for accomplishing the change and also for reviewing it.

The follow-up on the issue is important. You want to support your desired outcome in the other person by either positively recognizing it at a future time or by taking further disciplinary actions if that is necessary.

It is not likely that as a feed and grain manager, you may ever really completely look forward to having difficult and tough conversations. They are hard and can be unpleasant, but they provide great opportunity. Remember, the conversation is about the outcome and the result.

With the right tools you can handle these conversations and situations. And, by doing so, help make your feed and grain business better. Your reward as the manager is in the outcome and in knowing that you did the right thing to get there.

Colin Powell reminds us that “Command is lonely ... You can encourage participative management and bottom-up employee involvement, but ultimately the essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the fate of the organization. I’ve seen too many nonleaders flinch from this responsibility.”

Know that when you have a difficult conversation, you are being a responsible manager and leader, and you are showing you care enough to hold a difficult conversation.

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