Leadership: Don't dread difficult conversations

February 6, 2018 11:00

Telling the reporter who dreams of anchoring it isn’t going to happen this time around. Reminding the too-casual staffer that some conversations aren’t appropriate for the newsroom. Letting that aspiring producer know they’re just not the right fit.

These may be difficult conversations, but they’re part of the job description for newsroom managers.

If managers truly hope to bring out the best in every member of their teams, that means continual feedback and coaching. The inevitable difficult or uncomfortable conversation can induce dread in the conflict averse, but letting issues go unaddressed is much worse.

Here are some strategies to transform those difficult conversations in to productive problem-solving.

  • Do your homework before initiating a discussion. Investigate and assess the situation so you’re going in informed. Consider whether you may be mistaken and write down what you don’t know.
  • Determine your goal for the conversation. Remember that it’s not about blaming an individual, but about improving actions, behaviors, and ultimately performance, in order to prevent future issues. Do you need to start with simply getting more information, and plan a separate conversation to problem-solve?
  • Come to terms with your own emotions. Know that the conversation may be difficult. That’s ok. Feeling uncomfortable delivering bad news or bringing a problem to light is a sign of a compassionate, empathetic leader, not a sign of weakness. Examine your own emotional triggers and buttons.
  • Prepare, but don’t memorize a script. You don’t know exactly how the person will respond, so think through various scenarios.
  • Find the right time and place. Chose a private, distraction-free location. Consider the message the location sends. Calling someone into your office can be a reminder of authority. Choosing a neutral location like a conference room conveys collaboration.
  • Don’t ambush employees. Give a heads up and an indication of what you’d like to discuss. While some people may become more anxious anticipating an upcoming conversation, it can also be an opportunity to reflect and come prepared with solutions.
  • Open the discussion with a straightforward statement of your goal for the conversation. Be honest, direct, and specific.
  • Listen and ask questions. Ask open-ended how and what questions. Avoid debate and presumption. Slow down and take time to think before you respond, and don’t interrupt. Restate your employee’s statements to ensure you’re understanding.
  • Make sure the person gets your message. Don’t let the conversation drift into unrelated issues. If regular, productive feedback is part of your newsroom culture, there shouldn’t be any other lingering, unaddressed issues. Come up with solutions together. Without buy-in from your employee, your directives are less likely to be embraced.
  • Make sure the employee leaves with some positives. If the conversation isn’t going well, know that it’s ok to stop and suggest picking the conversation back up when it can be more productive and less heated. As a manager, you’re a facilitator and advocate for your staff. Ask what you can do to help the employee implement the solution you’ve agreed to.
  • Debrief and decompress. Immediately after the meeting, give yourself a break before you refocus. Take some time to get up and move. Check in with yourself and assess how the conversation went or what you’d do differently next time.
  • Make sure you follow up. End the conversation with a plan and timetable to follow up. Check in regularly and don’t forget to provide positive feedback if you notice the issue you addressed is being resolved.
While breaking bad news or providing constructive criticism may always be a little uncomfortable, with practice it gets easier to picture providing feedback as positive problem-solving rather than difficult conversations.

As a newsroom leader, effectively addressing potential problems and conflict is key in building a constructive, healthy workplace culture. 

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2019 Research