The 5 steps to making ‘difficult conversations’ easier

Part 4: If you’ve implemented the techniques laid out in Parts 1, 2 & 3 of this series, you’re well on the way to removing toxic behaviours from your team. Even with all this good work, sometimes there are still one or two individuals who have become entrenched in their toxic behaviours and are either unable or unwilling to change.

If toxic behaviour has become habitual, they may not realise they are being negative or pessimistic. There’s also the chance they might be very aware of the impact they are having and are making themselves feel better by putting other people, ideas and projects down.

Leaders and business owners are often busy and overloaded. This can lead us to ignore or dismiss some of the unwanted behaviours just because we don’t want something else to deal with, or don’t want to have a ‘drama’ with the individual. It’s absolutely true that we ‘get the culture we are willing to walk past’, so we need to deal with it if we are going to improve the culture.

It’s unusual for anyone to seek out situations that could be confrontational, so as a leader it can seem tempting put off addressing the issue. So, what if you could provide feedback on their behaviour in a positive way that doesn’t lead to confrontation and anger?

Start with your intent

When we decide to confront toxic behaviour, we can easily become caught-up in over-thinking what the person’s reaction will be and how this might impact us as the messenger. Here are a couple of tips to stop yourself spiralling emotionally around raising issues with others:

  • You are objecting to the behaviour, not the person

We all have positive and negative moments in life. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of ‘in the moment’. I know I cringe when I remember some of my workplace behaviours during difficult times in my life. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it just means I exhibited some poor behaviours. Some of the most constructive feedback I have received was during this time. It made me realise that people had noticed my bad mood, and that it was negatively impacting my personal brand. Having someone point this out to me made a huge difference in my career as I knew they supported me as a person but wanted my behaviour to change for the good of myself and the wider team.

  • Hold the intent to help the person succeed in your business and in their career.

Decide to have the discussion from a place of “How can I help this person?”. Think about what you know about them and what they want from life. Is their toxic behaviour helping them, or hindering them? Do they want to lead a team or have their own business in the future? If so, do they need to hear the message you want to tell them? If you view the situation and behaviour from this place, it’s actually a disservice to them not to point out something that’s holding them back. Coming from a place of wanting the best for them will make it a much more positive experience for you both.

And then follow a ‘tried & tested’ process to deliver the message

Here’s a technique I was fortunate enough to be taught back on the early 2000’s at Vodafone which has helped me provide feedback on behaviours in a constructive and non-confrontational way ever since.

The ideal time to deal with unacceptable behaviours is as close to the moment as possible. If you can take a few minutes and give the individual some feedback when you see or hear the behaviour, it’s much more impactful than waiting for a weekly meeting or performance review to bring it up. The conversation should take about 10 – 15 minutes maximum, as you only want to address the specific behaviour you recently witnessed, not a back-catalogue of issues.

Step 1: Ask if they are open to some feedback – if no, ask when would work for them and set this in their calendar

Step 2: In the discussion, be clear on what the benefit of the feedback is for them and why you are providing it to them. Is it to help them perform better in their role? Is it to help them build a path to a more senior role? Find something that shows that this for their benefit, not just a beat-up!

Step 3: Outline the Situation you observed to them. Describe the specific Behaviour they displayed that wasn’t aligned to the culture you want to encourage. Highlight the Impact this had on you and/or the team. Talking clearly about the impact they had is key in terms of enabling them to see what happens when they display the particular behaviour. If they hadn’t realised what impact they had been causing, they will after this discussion.

Step 4: Ask if they understand the feedback – sometimes what we say is not what people hear. Re-clarify using step 3 again if required.

Step 5: Ask them what they might do differently in the future. They may agree to change things, they may choose not to. There’s a chance that until now they were unaware of the impact of their behaviour – no-one may have had the courage to tell them before. They may need more time to process the information before they can commit to making a change.

By having this conversation, you have been very clear that the behaviour is no longer acceptable. Chances are, they are acting out in the office because of something else going on, and once they realise it’s impacting negatively on them and the rest of the team, they are likely to change their behaviour. If not, the next time you observe it, have the conversation again using the 5 steps until you see a change.

Sometimes, the individual will decide to make changes and can become a high-performing and committed member of the team. They will see that you support them and will refocus their energy in a positive way. Sometimes, they decide that if they can’t behave that way in your team or business, they will seek employment elsewhere. And very rarely, they just stay as they are which means you will need to talk to a HR professional to support you to manage their performance. Happily, this is the exception rather than the rule.

I hope this series on practical ways to remove toxic behaviours from your workplace has been helpful. I’ve had some great feedback from people who have started implementing the steps in their businesses and teams.

2 thoughts on “The 5 steps to making ‘difficult conversations’ easier

  1. This is a wonderful series and provides practical advice for dealing with common business challenges. The people in any organisation are key and nothing just falls into place on its own – success comes with acting to improve the workplace culture.

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