Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How do I have a crucial conversation with people who have very low self esteems? I work in a fast-paced office, full of nurses, all of whom have been “around the block” a few times. I’ve encountered one particular co-worker and friend who has desperately low self esteem. She is a hard worker and very knowledgeable. However, she almost always degrades herself, using statements like, “Well it’s probably my fault,” or “I’m sure I screwed up again.” Unfortunately, her work performance is suffering due to a lack of attention to critical details.
How do I approach her with my concerns, or anyone else for that matter, without hurting her feelings and feeling guilty?
Dear Facing Guilt,
You ask a tough question about a very important issue: how do you problem solve with someone who is quick to assume fault or has poor self-esteem? You want to solve problems and improve performance, but you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings or ruin the relationship.
In this situation, most of us will avoid the crucial conversation in order to “spare her feelings.” I call this the “cottage cheese on the counter” strategy. Picture yourself in need of an afternoon snack. You open the refrigerator and spot a container of cottage cheese. You open the lid and are assaulted by an awful, rancid smell. “Oooeee is that ever foul! It’s gone bad” you hear yourself say. It’s then you notice the mold growing on the surface. “Hmmm, I hate to waste food, maybe if I put the cottage cheese on the counter for a few days it will improve.” Well, let me tell you from personal experience, the cottage cheese left on the counter does not get better—it gets worse.
When we procrastinate having a crucial conversation with the hope that things will get better, we are fooling ourselves. People issues don’t improve when we ignore them. This is especially true for performance issues. When others lack specific feedback, they often conclude that if it were important to improve or “get the details” someone would mention it. Without feedback, performance degrades and quality and safety suffer.
So, if you shouldn’t ignore it. How do you do it? First, a principal of relationship-building. If you regularly and consistently give positive feedback, acknowledge good performance, give praise, and express appreciation to coworkers, you have earned the right to give constructive feedback and suggest improvements. One of the problems in giving feedback, especially to peers, is they might believe your view of them and their work is negative. However, if you have built a positive relationship through regular acknowledgements, they won’t automatically assume you don’t like them or don’t care about them when you suggest the need for improvement.
I strongly recommend you separate a “praise conversation” from a “feedback conversation.” Combining these conversations can seem like sandwiching—a manipulative technique, where you insert negative criticism in-between compliments. For example, “Hey George, I noticed you’ve had perfect attendance for 13 straight days! Good job. By the way, you got me your report late. If you are late one more time, you won’t work here anymore. Oh, and I love your tie, looks great with that jacket!” Never sandwich.
So, when it’s time to have that crucial conversation what do you do? Let’s start with what you don’t do. Don’t make small talk, pass judgments, make accusations, or transition from one subject to another.
The first step to beginning a conversation is to describe the gap. Begin by factually explaining what has occurred or what outcomes have resulted. Next, compare them to what was expected. The difference between what happened and what was expected is called the gap—it is also the problem you want to solve. This gap is now the agenda of the crucial conversation and you have presented it in a way that minimizes defensiveness.
The next skill is to ask a simple question to help you understand why the gap exists. Ask “Why?” or “How come?” or “Help me understand.”
The third skill in the sequence is to listen. Try to understand the reason behind the gap.
The conversation might sound like this: “Mary, I noticed you arrived today at 8:20, the job requires you to be here at 8:00. What happened?” Then, listen and begin to problem solve.
Occasionally, the other person will respond defensively. If this happens, simply share your good intention. Contrast what you intend with what you don’t intend. For example, if Mary responds by saying, “Oh, I’m such a flake!” respond with, “I’m not trying to fix blame or say that you don’t do good work; I just want to understand why the report didn’t arrive on time. Let’s fix the problem and make sure I can count on the report being on time in the future.” A statement of your good intention will put them at ease and help them focus on problem solving.
If you are consistent with this approach, it will strengthen your relationships with your coworkers, show them that your intentions are good, and help them be more confident in their work and solve problems without hurting feelings.
All the best,