Dealing with Difficult Conversations for Project Managers
By Bruce McGraw
Whether it’s an underperforming developer, a lazy team member, some type of inappropriate behavior, or a prima donna on the team that makes everyone angry, there are times in every project manager’s life when he or she must have a difficult conversation with employee team member. These conversations are always difficult because you will be saying something that the other person doesn’t want to hear. You will be asking the employee to change his or her behavior which is not something people are often motivated to do.
First things first
Ask yourself: What makes you think there is a problem that requires having that difficult conversation? Are deadlines being missed? Is the work suffering? Are there angry words or emails being exchanged? Has someone complained? Have you seen a problem or heard about it through the grapevine? Are you constantly putting out fires that seem to circle around this employee? Make notes. Be specific.
- What happened
- How often
- Who was involved
- What was the impact
Next decide whose problem it is. Some problems must be addressed at the organization level, even though you are responsible for initiating the action. These problems include violation of laws or corporate policies. Beyond that, problems that impact your team and meeting your goals are in your bailiwick and require that you have the difficult conversation.
Prepare for the meeting
Schedule a meeting location that offers privacy. Depending on the problem to be discussed, you may want to stage the meeting in a way that is somewhat informal—no barriers like a desk between you. Check your notes and be prepared to provide your employee with specific information not generalities. Decide what would be a good or ideal outcome so you can work toward that goal.
Be aware of your attitude and assumptions and how they will be perceived.
Once you are prepared—you have defined the characteristics of the problem, assured yourself it is a problem, know what behaviors you want changed—then get on with it. Invite the employee to a meeting as soon as possible.
Having the difficult conversation
Begin by presenting the situation in a non-threatening manner. “Joe, I believe that there are issues that are negatively affecting our team’s performance.”; “Mary, I would like your help in solving a problem on the team.” Do not make the initial statements in a way that implies blame, but rather describe a problem that needs to be solved. Present your perception of the issue and then ask for feedback.
Listen. The initial part of the conversation is about discovery. Does the employee perceive the problem the same way that others do? Do they believe that their behavior is contributing to it? For example, was Mary’s intention to be helpful, but the perception was that she was pushy and interfering? Was Joe failing to get his tasks done because he was preoccupied with his sick wife, or did he not know the tool he was supposed to be proficient in using, or did he think his assigned task was beneath his abilities?
Stay focused on the desired outcome—do not get embroiled in a debate or become defensive.
Give feedback on what you heard
Your employee will be more receptive to solving the problem when they believe that you understand their point of view. Paraphrase what they said and ask for confirmation. Keep in mind that you are not agreeing with them or their perceptions, you are clarifying their stated position and indicating that you listened to them.
Be careful not to take their comments personally.
Now it is your turn
State the problem in terms of effects using the information gathered in step 1—first things first. Specify how you want behaviors to change and how you will measure that change. Make the consequences of failure to change crystal clear. Be prepared for resistance, anger, defensiveness, or finger-pointing. However, do not get sucked into these emotional and self protective responses. Do not get distracted from where you want the meeting to conclude. A couple other do’s and don’ts:
- Do not make broad generalizations about behaviors or intentions
- Do not make accusations
- If there are multiple issues, deal with one at a time
- Let the employee know you really want this problem to be solved
- Be prepared to listen to alternatives as long as they address solving the problem
- At the conclusion of the meeting, summarize the expected behavior changes
- Schedule a follow up meeting, if appropriate
This article isn’t up beat and talking about some great new way to do project management better – it is just about how dealing with people is the most important thing you have to do!
Bruce A. McGraw is COO/EVP for Cognitive Technologies, a WBE/DBE consulting firm delivering project /program management, collaborative processes, and organizational effectiveness to commercial and government clients (www.cognitive-technologies.com). Bruce has been a program manager for over 25 years and has experience across multiple industries. His ability to craft pragmatic solutions to meet project goals, coupled with experience in all aspects of project management, enables him to meet customer expectations with on-time, within-budget deliveries. Bruce is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and is an active member of the Project Management Institute. Bruce authors a project management blog at Fear No Project and can be contacted at (512) 380-1204 or Bruce.McGraw@cogtechinc.com.