Difficult Conversations – No More Sh*t Sandwiches!

Here’s the situation we have all been in. You are asked by your manager to come into a room for “a quick word“. You both sit down and your manager asks you how you have been and makes a little smalltalk. He or she proceeds to tell how well you have been doing with a certain project, or compliments you on something you have done, and all the while the only word you can hear in your head is “But?” Then the bad news comes, whatever that may be, and then after that a little pep talk to make you feel all warm and fuzzy again. Or is it to make the manager feel better about having to have “a quick word“? Doesn’t matter. This is the classic ‘shit sandwich’  technique that has been trained in management since time began. Start with something nice, then the nasty bit, then end with something nice. Classic stuff and without doubt it does have its place.

There are occasions, however when as a manager you have to give a member of staff unpleasant feedback, a bit of a reprimand, a full on bollocking, the start disciplinary proceedings or worse fire them.  Oh and possibly the most unpleasant thing to have to tell an employee? That they smell.  There is no getting away from it, but having to have a difficult conversation can be tough, and many managers lose sleep over having to do it. When they do get around to it, they often spend a lot of time being nice and then hurrying through the issue in order to just get it over with.

Recognise that People are Savvy.

It is important that when you have to give feedback of this nature that it is done in a no nonsense way, the shit sandwich technique is good, but just like when people know when they are being sold to, so to do people know when they are being ‘managed’.  So get to the point. People hate the unknown, it makes them feel uncomfortable.  Good management practice and the science of human robotics says that if you see a behaviour that you like and appreciate, reward it. If you see a behaviour you do not like, then intervene and stop it, don’t hang on to it as it will fester. Timing is key.

What is the Best Approach?

If we look to the police or doctors, think about how they deliver the ultimate bad news; that someone has died. Do they fanny around the subject or come out with it? They have to leave the person being informed that there is no doubt in the outcome and that false hope is not apparent. So they say, “I am sorry to have to inform you, but Mrs XXX has been involved in accident and has died.”

Likewise when you have to have a conversation that is unpleasant, start with the outcome, leaving no doubt the recipients mind as to why they are there and what has happened. Let us take an example, someone being taken through a disciplinary due to punctuality issues. Once the “hello and take a seat” bit has been done, it goes like this, “Thank you for coming to this meeting today, it is not going to be a particularly easy meeting, however the reason you are here is to inform you that as a result of your continued lateness and lack of punctuality, the business will be commencing disciplinary procedures, and should your lateness continue during this process your position will be significantly at risk. During this meeting I will talking you through the process to help you through it with a view to improving your punctuality.”  What has happened is that you have explained why they are present at the meeting, what they have done and what the meeting will then be about.

Let us say we have someone with the dreaded odour issue. In this situation you do not go in with a bottle of deodorant or avoid the issue and up the number of plug in air fresheners about the office, hoping the problem with go away. Instead you tackle it, sensitively yet directly, remember it is a problem that needs to be sorted. Have the meeting a good distance from the rest of the team, more as to why in a minute. “Thank you for coming to this meeting, it is not my intention to upset or offend you, but the reason you are here is that I need to inform you that you have a personal hygiene problem that has been noticed in the office.” You see, very sensitive, direct and to the point. Now, something to be mindful of in this scenario is that there is a high probability that the person being told this doesn’t know and therefore will become either upset or more likely embarrassed and will want to get out of the meeting very quickly. So help them out.  Ask if there is anything that is happening in their life that they need help with or causing them problems, or if you know the issue, such as they might be the type of person who visits the gym before work and did not get time to shower, then deal with it.  Just get on with it and let them leave. If it is very bad odour then ask them if they would like to go home to get it sorted, then discreetly leave the meeting separately so it doesn’t look obvious to others, hence why having the meeting away from the team is important and sensitive.

Letting Your Words ‘Land’.

When you give bad news to someone, it is often the case that things get hurried and this can be a mistake. You need to let what you are saying sink in or ‘land’, so once you have delivered the information, simply be quiet, just for about a count of five.  Ideally the first person to speak should be the recipient so that the person delivering the news doesn’t come out with a load of justification statements therefore weakening the impact of the news. This does take practice, however it is one of the best approaches.

Getting the all Important ‘YES’

At the end of any difficult conversation there is something that needs to be asked of the person in the meeting. This question ensures that they understand the reason why they have been asked to the meeting and why it had to happen. It is very simple, “Just to check, you do understand why I have had to have this meeting with you don’t you?” or “You understand why it was important to discuss this, yes?” Having the agreement like this, just rounds off the meeting allowing both parties to move on, so do your best to include it.

The Importance of a Paper Trail.

Thinking about the disciplinary or more formal bad news meeting, (not the body odour issue) be sure to confirm what has been discussed in an email. It formalises and confirms what has been said and agreed during the meeting.  It is also worth remembering that these meetings can put people into a form of shock, so they often forget what has been said, so having it in writing makes sense.  Having a paper trail also ensures that if you do have to take things even further, your H.R. department have the appropriate evidence to work with, as the paper trail will form a time and date record of activity, which is vital to effective performance management methods.

The structure of these meetings is the same regardless of the issue, so insert your own subject to the framework given above.  Whether you have to have difficult conversation in or out of work this framework really is quite effective. The final message is that people who are the recipients of these conversations should be treated as people, fairly and politely. If things get heated stay in touch with your emotions and stick to the evidence.

Having a difficult conversation need not be difficult as long as you follow a structure and a process. It will make you a better manager and the experience will ensure you have the ability to do it at any time needed with confidence and a sense of fairness.

This blog forms part of the Management Essentials Training offered by Simon Hares aka SerialTrainer7. To find out more please email simon@serialtrainer7.com or call Simon on 07979 537824. 


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