Every business leader faces tough situations where they have to give uncomfortable feedback to employees. In those moments, it can be hard to know what to say and easy to screw it up, say Joseph Folkman, a leadership consultant and author of The Power of Feedback (Wiley, 2006).
Here's a quick guide to three sticky situations and how to handle them effectively:
Scenario 1: An employee wants a promotion but isn't ready.
With any employee looking to advance, position yourself as a coach trying to help them find success. "If you're viewed as the gate keeping this person from being promoted, it won't be a good discussion," says Folkman.
"Start the discussion with questions," he says. Ask, why do you feel that you are ready for this promotion? What will this help you accomplish in the long run? What are your current professional priorities? Your goal is to understand where the person is coming from and where they hope to go so that you can help them bridge the gap.
Often, employees overlook missing skills that aren't listed in the job description, such as the ability to take initiative, act as a mentor to others, or think strategically about the future. Help them grow by clarifying what those skills are and giving specific suggestions about how to demonstrate them. "Focus on what they can do [to improve]," Folkman says. "Let it be a discussion."
Scenario 2: An employee is a good worker but clashes with the team.
Interpersonal issues are sensitive, so listen to the employee's perspective. To do that, bring up a specific situation and start by asking what they intended to communicate or accomplish. "I very rarely talk to anyone whose intentions were negative," Folkman says. Typically, they either don't recognize how their behavior affects others, or they don't know how to act differently.
To help them gain awareness, ask questions like, did you notice how people reacted when you said that? Why do you think they responded that way? "If you can help them see the cues and understand them, then they can start to adjust their behavior," Folkman says.
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Once they acknowledge the issues, help them come up with new ideas about how they could behave differently. Encourage them to experiment by replacing a negative behavior with a positive one, such as writing down a thought instead of interrupting. Discuss the outcome with them afterward. Ideally, they'll start to see that they are more successful when they work in sync with the group.
Scenario 3: An employee started out strong but is no longer growing or improving.
Many employees who stop growing no longer feel challenged. "At a new job, passion and energy are really high but competence is really low," Folkman says. "New employees are hanging on by their fingertips and don't quite know what they're doing." The newness forces them to learn and grow very quickly, creating a satisfying sense of accomplishment. Over time, passion can fade as competence grows, leading people to coast on their expertise without really growing or improving.
To help an employee regain momentum, create a new problem to solve. "If you put people in a position or task they haven't done before, you'll see that new job cycle start up again," Folkman says. When you can, align the challenges you offer with your employee's career goals, such as an opportunity to learn business development for someone who eventually wants to start a company.
No matter what they're working on, you can help boost motivation by showing them the impact their work makes. If they see how their work benefits others and how improving their performance changes the outcome, they’re much more likely to work hard for you even after the novelty fades, says Folkman.