At the Pointy End

Thursday, November 1, 2012 - 12:10

Want to be a manager with all the perks and power? Sounds great, but there can be a downside to being the boss - sacking people. By Leon Gettler

The toughest job for managers is having difficult conversations. Some examples: we're going to have to let you go; you didn't get that promotion; there's a problem with your performance.

Managers may worry about the impact those conversations may have on a person (what if they cry? what if they turn violent?). They may also be aware other employees are watching. A badly communicated message could affect productivity. And the worst part about it is the manager is never praised for doing it well. You become the bastard for the day.

The problem is many managers are not trained to do it. After all, many got the job because they were technical experts in their field. They were good at processes and products. More often than not, they were not promoted for their people skills and ability to tell people home truths.

For many, it is a completely different skill set and something they have needed to learn on the job.

AIM's Victoria and Tasmania CEO Susan Heron says the ability to have a difficult conversation comes with the territory of being a manager. If you can't do it, get a different job.

"The skill to have that difficult conversation is a fundamental requirement for management,'' Heron says. "It's not an option, you have to be able to do this.We run a course specifically named 'Difficult Conversations' and we run them regularly because our clients know this is a learning that can be provided. It's actually something you can be taught."

So what do they learn in these courses?

"You're never going to go in with a comfort factor because it's an uncomfortable conversation, but you need to be comfortable you can come into it with the knowledge to appropriately address it," she says.

"These are conversations that involve individuals and that's very hard. These are also conversations that are taking place under difficult circumstances and also with a view that we have a complex IR regime so one needs to be very careful.

"When you come into these conversations, you have to approach them with respect, honesty and openness. If you are the person initiating the conversation and providing the bad news, you have to understand there are a number of perspectives in place.

"There needs to be personal perspective on this and you need to be very careful to make sure the conversation recognises the subjectiveness of ... what's being discussed, but also can move to an objective platform where it can be done on an overview and it can be constructive and instructive as well."

HR specialist Margaret Harrison, who runs Melbourne-based Our HR Company, says too many managers are frightened of having these conversations. She says one of the most difficult challenges for managers is to focus on the behaviours, and not on the individual or their attitude.

"They do it so badly,'' Harrison says. "They leave it to a poor performance appraisal and hit someone over the head with something that happened nine months ago. The person who has to do it is afraid of the reaction.

"I can remember when I was at adidas I had to coach people on how to do it and sometimes they would say, 'I would be happier if you were sitting there with me' and I said, 'But you know I would be sitting there and saying nothing', and they said, 'That's OK as long as you're there with me'. There's a real fear in doing it.

"I don't think they have really worked out in their brain to have some specific examples and to talk objectively, rather than personally, and to talk about the behaviour rather than the person. They find that difficult to do. You really have to focus on behaviour. People can change behaviours, they can't change attitude."

She says the avalanche of electronic communication for managers has made that task a lot more difficult.

There have been cases where managers used that instead of face-to- face communication. Sydney retailer Modestie Boutique last year, for example, was fined $10,000 by Fair Work Australia for sacking an employee by text.

Harrison says that should never happen. Email and text should not replace conversations. "You can't get the tone of voice through on the internet,'' she says. "If I was doing a training course on that, I would be making people read out what they've actually written so they can get the inflection. Does it sound like what you wanted to sound?

"Even the phone is better. If someone is working in Perth and you're the manager in Melbourne, a telephone call would be better than email because you have inflection in your voice, and you can't do it in email."

Tim McLean, chief executive officer of lean manufacturing and project management company TXM Lean Solutions, says the most important thing managers need to do is be prepared.

"Basically, people stop listening once they hear the factory is going to close and people are going to lose their job,'' McLean says.

"They start thinking, 'Oh s..., I have just bought a new house', 'Oh s..., my wife is eight months pregnant'. As soon as they hear the bad news, they start thinking about themselves personally.

"So you need a process where you communicate with people individually.

"Some of them might be doing a little dance and saying, 'I want a package'. They might want to know how much they're going to get or they might want to know if they can keep their job. So you have to know those kinds of answers.

"You need to have thought out the likely questions people will ask and how you would answer those, and have that information available for managers."

A former operations manager in manufacturing, McLean has had many of these conversations. He says the most important skill for managers is to diffuse the emotion.

"What you don't want to be saying is no, no, no, no, this is going to happen, black and white, suck it up, the company has to do what it has do, because you will get people becoming completely irrational and you lose them and they stop listening to you,'' he says.

"You have to listen to what they're saying to you and not see it as a black and white discussion. There will be things they'll be saying that you can agree with. Whatever you do, don't make promises you can't keep. Don't say we'll review the situation if the decision's already been made. Instead, you have to find things you can agree with."

He gives a sample of the conversation: "Yes, we'll give you an opportunity to interview for the new job. Yes, I understand you have worked here your whole career, but we'll give you some outplacement assistance.

"You've never written a resume? We'll make sure you get some help writing a resume and if you want to show me your resume to make sure it's good, I'm happy to do that for you."

And if they get emotional? "You let it rip,'' he says. "You might ask them if they want a glass of water, do you want me to stay, do you want some time on your own.

"It's a grief process, it's the same as a divorce. You might also want to consider counselling services or chaplaincy services."