If you are going to make it successfully up to equity partner and beyond, you will need a high performing team working for you. A high performing team doesn’t happen by chance! If you are going to lick your team into shape, you have to be prepared to have difficult conversations about performance with individuals from your team, and the team as a whole.

Many talented professionals shy away from these conversations and are prepared to accept sub-standard performance from members of their team.  Here are 6 clues as to whether you are one of those talented professionals and what you can do to make it easier to overcome your personal hurdles to having a difficult conversation.

1) Not feeling comfortable delivering negative messages to your team

Nobody promised you that team leadership or people management would ever be easy. A great team leader is as comfortable in delivering negative messages as they are positive messages. Look around you at the partners and people in your firm who seem to be good at getting difficult messages across. What do they do well? How do they start the conversation? How do they gain permission to get across a difficult message?

You may find that it helps by asking your team permission to have a difficult conversation. For example:

We’ve got the latest WIP report in for our team. Is it OK if we are honest with each other and talk about the root cause of our WIP being the highest in the firm?’

I used to work for Procter & Gamble, and they used to use the following metaphor to gain permission for a difficult conversation:

“Can we put the moose on the table?”

Another way of doing this, which is perhaps slightly easier for us non-P&G’ers to understand:

“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?”

Very often we don’t feel comfortable with difficult conversations because we have had conversations that have gone very badly in the past. There is no guarantee that your next difficult conversation will go badly though! Remember that it is far better for everyone to praise in public and criticise in private. The more ‘positive’ examples you gain of having difficult conversations, the easier it will become for you to tackle these conversations. You may be interested in downloading our FREE assertiveness self-assessment (email required)

2) Procrastinating & avoiding difficult conversations with your team, until forced to act

If you find yourself suddenly having ‘lots to do’ when you know you have a difficult conversation to have, then you are avoiding the conversation.  Remember that the sooner you have the conversation, the sooner you nip the problem in the bud. One of my clients contacted me after a very difficult meeting with her partner, when he put her on formal management procedures and used a series of examples to justify the management action. However, most of these examples were at least 6 weeks old. Consequently, she had difficulty accepting the validity of the examples, as she couldn’t get past the ’why did he not talk to me at the time?’

The ‘fresher’ the topic area is to both parties, the easier it is to have a difficult conversation.

3) Lack of expectations or objectives being set

Very often difficult conversations and particularly low performance happens when you haven’t set expectations of what is acceptable. Your team will initially welcome a level of direction, as contrary to popular opinion they actually do want to do a good job. Stating the obvious, most professionals in a firm do not aspire to ‘mediocre performance’. (Even if it feels like it at times!)

By setting expectations or formal objectives, you have something tangible to benchmark your team members’ performance against. This tangibility can often be the difference between a difficult conversation going well or retreating into a slanging match. It also makes any difficult feedback easier to swallow if someone can clearly see where they have not met expectations.

4) No negative feedback (or limited feedback) given to your team

When your workload is high, it is often easy to skip the review and feedback part of project management. If you only find yourself praising your team, that’s great – however, your team will welcome feedback on how they can lift their performance even higher. Don’t fall into the trap of giving feedback sandwiches, otherwise your team will never hear the positive but always focus on the negative.

5)  Always giving your team member another chance to make it up to you

If you are going to become a successful partner you will have to be prepared to take tough decisions. That’s part and parcel of the role. Your partners will be looking out for your ability to take difficult decisions. If you are always making excuses for poor performers in your team, or giving your poor performer a ‘get out of jail free’ card, then you are putting off the inevitable.

Formal performance management procedures are there for a reason. They are not particularly pleasant to be put on (or to manage) – but better that a team member sorts themselves out or potentially leaves the firm, rather than them dragging your numbers and reputation down with them. A team member should not be surprised that they are being put on formal performance management. If they are surprised, then you haven’t been giving them enough feedback on their performance or talking them through the consequences of not bucking up their ideas. You may want to read our FREE (email required) factsheet on running a performance review.

6) Wanting to always be liked by your team

This is a tough one. No-one takes on management responsibilities to gain a ‘feared’ reputation or to become actively disliked. However, your aim is that you need to be respected first and liked second. You will always be respected by your team for having tough conversations. If you have them in the right way, you will still be liked at the end of the conversation. However, if you duck and avoid the conversation, you may still be liked by not respected by your team – which is a recipe for not being taken seriously by your team or the partners.

Which of these six points resonated the most with you? That is the one to work on over the next few months. Remember, you won’t always be liked, but if you are going to lick your team into shape, you have to be prepared to have a difficult conversation about performance with individuals from your team and the team as a whole.

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