Being a general counsel is no easy task. GCs must engage in high-stakes, emotionally charged conversations; tell uncomfortable truths; and pry open the story beneath the surface. Here are four keys to unlocking the fortress of fear that can surround difficult discussions in the workplace.
Key No. 1: Say what the conversation will not cover. All listeners fill in the gaps. I see jurors do this: They hear a few facts, their brains start scanning for similar scenarios, and they project what they think happened or will happen.
So, a GC’s hard conversation about an attorney’s performance should begin with, "Joe, this is not a meeting regarding your termination." Doing so prevents Joe’s brain from hijacking the real focus of the conversation and allows the meaning of the message to get through.
The goal is to make sure the listener hears the signal, not the noise. To increase the odds that the listener will receive the message, ask him to summarize the conversation in an email. If all he heard was the noise, review the email with him.
Key No. 2: Say what the conversation will cover. In "Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst ‘Best’ Practices of Business Today," Susan Scott gives solid advice for the next stage of the conversation.
Proceed directly: "I want to talk with you about XYZ." Avoid: "I need to talk to you about XYZ." The first communicates strength and openness; the second communicates weakness and lecturing.
The GC should describe the issue in specific and concrete terms. Scott also suggests using the words "at stake." The phrase packs an emotional wallop. It conveys that consequences will follow if the employee’s conduct does not change. A GC partly at fault for the failure to address the situation needs to acknowledge that. Finally, the GC should communicate positive intention by closing with "I want to resolve this issue."
By the way, Scott notes that hard conversations are not always conversations about wrongdoing, performance or unethical conduct. Sometimes, it is just as hard to be open about praise.
Key No. 3: No topic is off limits. Shari Harley proves that it’s possible to judge a book by its cover. The content of her book, "How to Say Anything To Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships That Really Work" matches its title.
Let’s sniff out how to talk to an employee with body odor. First, Harley says the manager must introduce the conversation with a simple, "John, I’d like to talk to you."
Second, she should blast away with hand-to-heart empathy: "This is a little awkward. . . . I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, and I’m doing this because I care about you and I want you to be successful." This strikes me as a very Buddhist approach, which requires that people possess "right intention" before taking an action.
Third, the manager should employ this powerful phrase: "I’ve noticed that (insert conduct.)" This is powerful because it is direct and it reflects what the manager has observed (no pointing the finger at co-workers, which can trigger an employee’s defense mechanisms). Being straightforward also is being kind; it avoids stretching out the message like the drip, drip, drip of water torture.
Fourth, the manager explains how the employee’s odor impacts colleagues.
Fifth, the manager invites the employee to talk, by asking, for example, "What are your thoughts?" Then, the manager makes suggestions on how to fix the issue and concludes by thanking the employee for being willing to have the conversation.
Key No. 4: Script difficult conversations. I just finished reading, "The Young Professional’s Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares" by C.K. Gunsalus. It is a first rate book on situational ethics.
She writes about how to deal with a situation involving possible wrongdoing. One of her students claimed, in a paper he submitted, that he attended a required event, but the attendance records showed otherwise.
How to handle that? Gunsalus advises developing what she calls a script, laying out her planned remarks.
She drafted an opening along these lines: "I am confused by an apparent conflict between your paper and the attendance records. My duty is to apply the same requirements to all students." That’s fair to her and states her responsibilities.
She then crafted the script to create an opening for the student: "I hope you will be willing to share your reactions with me. Can you help me understand the conflict?" That’s fair to the student.
She writes that this line demonstrates genuine interest in the other person’s perspective, does not prejudge the situation and is an open-ended question inviting a response. If there is an innocent explanation, the student now has a chance to provide it.
There is a bonus as well, as Gunsalus writes: The approach "also provides a face-saving out if your initial concerns or conclusions were wrong." Sadly, she wasn’t wrong about the student.
Most people shy away from a hard conversation, asking that this cup pass from us. But being the chief legal officer means having the courage to take on what others won’t. Our worries, though, are like the witches in "Macbeth," spooky but ephemeral. Fears evaporate by taking action.
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