How to Have More Successful Supervisory Conversations

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For a couple of decades, one of the first exercises I did in every supervisory skills class was to ask the participants what they wanted to learn. Again and again, “How to talk to team members about behavior or performance” turned up at the top of the list. Here’s what you need to know if you want to do that part of a boss’s job well.

Prepare the Ground

If you imagine a conversation about behavior or performance as a standalone event, it will always be difficult and it will hardly ever be successful. You’ll have to start way ahead of time to do the things that create a relationship and make it more likely that your tough conversations will come out well.

Touch base a lot. That includes regular contact in the course of the workday and regular one-on-one meetings. I suggest you have those meetings every week.

When you touch base, especially in the course of the workflow, have conversations with team members. Some of those conversations will be about the work itself, but many, perhaps most, will be the kind of conversations that two people have. You’ll find that you have something in common with just about everyone who will ever work for you. That’s a good place to start to have conversations that build relationships.

Don’t Delay

When you become aware of a problem or an incident that requires a conversation, don’t wait for “the right time.” It won’t come. Don’t wait for your regular one-on-one, either. The longer you let things go, the harder it is to have the conversation and deal with the issue.

Think of it this way. Problems are like dinosaurs. They’re easy to kill when they’re small, but once they get big they can eat you and your Land Rover.

Make the Conversation Specific

Talk about one kind of behavior or one kind of performance. Don’t try to expand the conversation to cover lots of things. Never use words like “attitude,” “always” or “never.” Be specific.

Tailor Your Conversation to The Other Person

The management books offer advice like “Set the other party at ease with small talk.” That will work, if small talk sets the other party at ease, but it won’t work for everyone. You will have people for whom small talk creates exactly the opposite reaction. They get nervous, and anxious. They want you to get to the point and quit wasting time.

If you spend time with your people, you know their preferences. Now’s the time to use that knowledge. Make it as easy as possible for them.

The Big Goal

You want the team member to leave the conversation thinking about what he or she will do differently. You do not want them thinking about how you treated them, especially if they think you were unfair. A supervisory conversation is not an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you’re the one in charge. It is an opportunity for you to help the team member improve their performance or behavior.

What to Tell Them

Tell the other person what they did and why it matters. Do not use any adjectives. None. Zero. You want to describe what they did or how they performed as objectively as possible, and adjectives get you off target.

After you’ve told them what they did and why it matters in a couple of sentences, be quiet. Wait for them to talk next. That’s the best way to ensure that you have a conversation about the issue at hand.

Before You Move On

Before you and your team member part company, make sure you have agreement on the important things. What is going to change? When will it change? How will each of you know that it has changed? What will happen if it does or doesn’t change?

The Job’s Not Over ‘Till the Paperwork Is Done

After the conversation is done and while things are still fresh in your mind, make the notes you need to make. Supervisory conversations are one of the most important things that bosses do. There are 18 tips about how to design supervisory conversations better in my book, Become A Better Boss One Tip at A Time. Click here for more information.

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