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The Key to Managing Difficult Employees? Positive Intervention.

Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is CHRO of the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, CA, and he's held senior-level HR positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and City of Hope. Paul is the author of a number of bestselling HarperCollins, AMACOM, and SHRM Books, many of which have been ranked as bestsellers in the categories of human resources management, labor & employment law, business mentoring & coaching, communication in management, and business decision-making and problem-solving.

Where do communication, effective leadership, and motivation usually fall apart?

Once a manager starts sweeping things under the rug or leaves ongoing challenges unaddressed.

As they say, the path of least resistance is avoidance, and it tends to be natural for human beings to hope problems fix themselves over time. And sometimes they do. . . . In the other 99 percent of cases, however, it becomes important to intervene and help guide your employees back on the right path.

Throughout my career, I’ve written books like 101 Tough Conversations to Have With Employees to show managers what a positive intervention looks like. I approach the topic of disciplining employees from a coaching standpoint.

Why? Because if you come across as a unilateral decision maker and disciplinarian, you will likely kill the spirit that makes every team unique. But, if you present your ideas on the basis of selfless leadership with a spirit of growing and developing those you’re fortunate enough to lead, you’ll quickly become someone’s favorite boss, which is one of the highest honors the workplace has to offer.

Sure, it’s much easier to reward good performance than to address problematic situations. But the workplace has plenty of room for both: recognition and appreciation as well as course correction, and at times even discipline and termination. Your responsibility as a leader is to create a work environment where people can motivate themselves, and the simplest way to do that lies in addressing employees professionally and respectfully while maintaining the highest standards of fairness and integrity.

How to Start a Tough Conversation

Two types of difficult employee conversations

Sometimes tough conversations result in general discussions about getting an individual or a team to course correct or tweak a particular practice to ratchet up performance or to provide a higher level of customer satisfaction. Sometimes those conversations have to address massive challenges like discipline, layoffs, and terminations. What’s important in all cases is that people feel like they were treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

Although you may have to deliver devastating news about terminations and intensely personal situations, you can still do that respectfully, professionally, and compassionately. That’s the key to effective leadership communication: I encourage all managers to set high standards for their employees, hold them accountable, and in advance of a particularly challenging meeting, to role-play what that conversation might sound like, how an employee might respond, and how they can hear what that dialogue might sound like in their minds before it ever occurs.

In 101 Tough Conversations, I provide managers with hundreds of scripts to help them figure out how to approach an employee about an uncomfortable matter. What these scripts aren’t intended to do is create a word-by-word dialogue for every difficult scenario that comes your way as an executive leader, operational manager, or frontline supervisor. As an author, I can’t know your or anyone else’s style—I can only know my own.

Telling you how to have tough conversations with your employees is like trying to tell you how to have difficult conversations with your kids: So much depends on your own unique parenting style, your beliefs about the parent-child relationship, and the way you were parented yourself. So please view the material in this book as suggested approaches to common scenarios you’ll encounter in the workplace. Customize them in your voice; infuse them with your personal style, creativity, and leadership beliefs.

Communication is most critical to your success as a manager

Most managers would agree that people problems are what often keep them up at night. CEOs worry about employee performance, productivity, and innovation. Chief human resources officers are frequently concerned with turnover, employee satisfaction and engagement, and succession planning. Operational leaders at all levels focus on everything—output, quality, timeliness, and overall operational excellence. As social scientists who study the workplace will tell you, human capital performance is the primary lever that drives organizational success and distinguishes great companies from merely good ones.

My purpose as a leadership author is to help readers master one of the most challenging aspects of effective leadership: communication, which includes setting expectations and holding employees accountable.

Building your leadership muscle in this one critical area is the greatest investment you can make in your career. Communication is a natural skill and talent that can be honed over time—if you’re willing to build muscle and confidence in this key area of professional and career development.

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