4 reasons managers dread tough talks and how HR leaders can help

At every level in the corporate world, there are dreaded responsibilities that are just part of the job. For many top executives, the tough conversations about performance and career trajectory have long fallen victim to procrastination, but connecting on a personal level is even more challenging now when a report is on the other side of a screen, rather than the other side of a desk.

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With mid-year performance reviews upon us, here are the top four reasons why executives are apprehensive about this type of dialogue and what HR leaders can do to transform these tasks into opportunities:

1. They never received direct feedback themselves, so they don’t know what behavior should model such a discussion.

It really is surprising how few executives have been on the receiving end of a rave review. And some have never even taken part in an in-person performance review session, so they lack a picture of what one looks like—regardless of whether the report is great or grim.

HR executives can ease the pain by providing a tip sheet of phrases to open the conversation and transition between positive and negative feedback. For example, a manager could say, “There must have been obstacles to achieve all that you have; I’d love to take a moment to explore the challenges you’ve encountered and share some of my own observations.” Or, “We are all on our own developmental journey, and to that end, I’d like to share my thoughts on growth opportunities for you and hear your valuable perspective, as well.”

A short video role-play could also be created and shared with managers as a refresher before every season of performance reviews.

2. They do not properly prepare for review sessions.

Many leaders underestimate the time it takes to plan a meaningful feedback session and skip steps that are necessary to both understand and be understood.

HR leaders can help managers shape productive conversations by creating a one-pager that prompts them to think through one-on-ones well in advance. Consider including suggestions, such as:

  1. Remember that this is the work that your direct report focused on all year; it is their identity, in a sense, and means a lot to them. Keep in mind that the direct report took great care to prepare a list of his or her accomplishments. Honor that year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears by properly preparing for the conversation.
  2. Map performance feedback back to the original objective and goal.
  3. Take the time to check in with stakeholders for their inputs.
  4. Create a summary document to manage your messages.
  5. Focus first on the positive and end on a positive, with opportunity for improvement sandwiched in the middle. Share examples to streamline the discussion, so the reviewee’s thoughts don’t wander in their search for understanding.
  6. Allow enough time to explore via a thorough dialogue, as well as white space for the employee to inquire and achieve understanding.
  7. Again, end the session with support and on a high note!

3. They’d rather take the easy way out.

Despite dealing with tough situations every day, many leaders avoid conflict with co-workers like the plague. They’re hesitant to have hard conversations because they find the tension that goes along with them almost unbearable. So, unfortunately, some leaders opt for being phony yet polite, instead of direct yet helpful. For others, it’s important to be liked—they think withholding honest feedback will keep the warm, fuzzy feelings flowing—and they end up sacrificing the opportunity to be deeply respected.

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HR leaders can relieve the understandable angst that comes with performance reviews by sending a company-wide memo before they begin to calibrate expectations. Key points include:

  1. It is OK to agree to disagree when the conflict is managed properly, with respect.
  2. There’s power in truth; it provides direction so you can get to where you really want to be.
  3. Everyone handles conflict differently, greatly influenced by their upbringing and stage of adult development. Do your best to be patient and show understanding.

4. Leaders and managers are not often rewarded for doing this work well!

Let’s face it … in our time-crunched world, “What gets measured is what gets done” — and I might add “and gets done better!”

Most organizations do not assess how well their leaders facilitate performance reviews and help their reports map out their career trajectories. If HR executives push for their companies to tie this skill to compensation, improvement will come. For example, direct reports could rate multiple aspects of their performance reviews, and managers could receive bonuses that correspond with their average rating. Like magic, managers will pay more attention to their own performance during these exercises.

For the majority of executives, it’s human nature to avoid interpersonal conflict with the employees they’ll have to face around conference tables, in the break room, and on Zoom calls. But HR leaders can step up to solve the problem with invaluable guidance for effectively confronting difficult conversations with clear, confident action. Tough career conversations may be viewed as necessary evils, but when done right, they absolutely enhance the greater good.

Leigh Ann Errico
Leigh Ann Errico is a Georgetown University-certified leadership coach, Corentus-certified team coach and the founder of LA Errico & Partners.