Why Can't Managers Have 'Difficult' Conversations?
This is a question I get asked a lot - usually by frustrated HR professionals.
My simple answer: it isn't the most compelling sales pitch in the world is it? "How would you fancy having this really difficult conversation?" It's probaly the equivalent of asking an arachnaphobe if they fancy cuddling a tarantula.
It's often said that soft skills are the hardest nut to crack, and nowhere is this more evident than when HR professionals are grappling with managers' reluctance to engage in conversations with their employees.
Why are these 'soft' skills, particularly the art of conversation, posing such a significant challenge in the workplace? In my view, the answer lies in a complex mix of lack of confidence, insufficient training, and the fading art of employee relations.
The Misnomer of 'Soft' Skills
'Soft' skills, a term often used to describe abilities like communication, empathy, and emotional intelligence, are anything but soft. In reality, they are some of the most robust and crucial skills in a manager's toolkit. Yet, these skills are frequently undervalued, leading to a workforce of managers ill-equipped to handle delicate, yet critical, conversations.
The Confidence Conundrum
One of the biggest hurdles is confidence – or the lack thereof. Many managers don't engage in necessary conversations because they simply don't believe they can handle them effectively. This lack of confidence isn't unfounded; it often stems from a lack of development in these key areas.
Leadership Fairy Dust!
Sadly, many organisations don't seen to put any emphasis on development of soft skills. Managers are often trained in technical aspects of their role but left adrift when it comes to the nuances of human interaction. It's as though there's an expectaion that when they sign a contract saying "manager" some magic leadership fairy dust will sprinkle over them. Without the proper tools, techniques, and skills, they are understandably apprehensive about diving into potentially fraught conversations. Imagine being expected to drive a car without lessons - it won't end well!
Fear: The Silent Saboteur
Fear plays a significant role. The fear of saying the wrong thing, of escalating a situation, or of not being able to resolve an issue effectively looms large for many managers. This fear can paralyse, leading to complete avoidance rather than resolution. Ostrich management is something I see a lot of - hoping it will go away or things will work out naturally.
Employee Relations: a Dying Art
There's also a broader cultural aspect at play. The art of talking, of building relationships and understanding through dialogue, is waning in the digital age. This decline in face-to-face interaction skills has ripple effects in the workplace, particularly in how employee issues are addressed and resolved. The pandemic didn't help, but that's no excuse - this decline has been happening for many years, but it seems to be accelerating.
HR's Role: Support vs Substitution
A common response to this challenge is for HR professionals to step in and handle these conversations on behalf of managers. While this might seem helpful in the short term, it doesn’t address the underlying issue. Instead, it can inadvertently undermine a manager’s development and therefore ability to manage their responsibilities effectively. Supporting, guiding, and nurturing managers is crucial, but taking over their role in 'difficult' conversations can exacerbate long-term problems, leaving managers underdeveloped and overly reliant on HR intervention.
Revolutionising Leadership Conversations
Recognising these challenges, we at Pragmatism (UK) Ltd run "Having Difficult Conversations" training. This isn’t your typical, dry, theoretical course. We focus on real-life, practical skills and discussions. Our aim? To empower managers with the same skills and techniques used in mediation so they can talk to their employees, deal with sticky situations and not need HR to do their job for them.
The irony of soft skills being the hardest is a poignant reflection of today’s workplace realities. Developing these skills is crucial for effective leadership and the early resolution of employee issues. Our approach is about equipping managers with the confidence and tools they need to transform from managers to true leaders by enabling them to have conversations.
Remember, it's not just about having difficult conversations; it's about having them well. If this is a challenge for your organisation and you need to develop your managers, download our brochure.