5 key principles for having tough conversations
By Robby Kukler
If you asked me the one area that I think a vast majority of people in our industry could improve upon, one that would deliver the greatest return on effort, it is learning how to have tough conversations with team members. Giving employees specific actionable feedback related to their performance is one of the greatest gifts you can give to an individual, yourself and your entire team.
But it’s not easy. A recent poll from VitalSmarts found that more than 80% of managers drag their feet when it comes to tough conversations, conversations they know they need to address but are dreading.
Why do so many people struggle with it?
We all want our team members to grow and improve in their performance, but as managers many of us avoid giving them the input needed to achieve this because we anticipate it will be a negative, uncomfortable or confrontational experience. It may be a lack of confidence if you have never been taught how to successfully approach these conversations, or you might be worried about the response you will get from your team member – anticipating anger, resentment or tears are tough hurdles to overcome.
I still had these concerns fairly deep into my career, but I knew if I wanted my team to improve, and therefore my restaurants to improve, I had to have the courage to step outside my comfort zone and have these uncomfortable conversations. With the help of a coach, I created a process and style that worked for me and took the next step toward being a better leader.
I found that when done properly, it can be a very positive experience for you and your team members. Most people sincerely want to know what is expected from them, where they stand and how they’re doing in their job.
To build confidence and skill in providing feedback to your team members that is both meaningful and actionable, use the following steps to get started:
Approach & Style Matter
A sense of urgency is important. Don’t let issues linger, because silence is acceptance. But choosing the proper time and place to have a constructive conversation must take precedent.
Always have these conversations in person and in private. Remember that you are addressing a problem or a behavior, not the person.
Don’t accuse the team member of anything or question their intent. Try to approach this as a two-way conversation with their best interest in mind. Have the mindset that you are doing this for someone, not to someone.
When offering constructive criticism, you want to show that you’ve given the matter thought. You are more likely to connect with the team member if you can give context and specific examples to demonstrate what the issues are.
Have a clear and specific written outline with exactly what you want to say and how you are going to say it. Your notes should include specifically what you want the outcome of this conversation to be and the changes you want the employee to make.
Be direct, clear, and empathetic. You can be tactful, but do not sugarcoat things as the message will get lost. Generalities are ineffective and can give the team member an easy out to say they don’t do that. Here’s an example of being specific:
“I’ve noticed lately that you have not been greeting your guests or getting their first drinks to them in X minutes or less, our standard of service. You are also not consistently pre-bussing your tables and preparing them for their next course.”
Notice the distinct wording – there is no ambiguity about what the issue is. Compare that to generalities like “you’re not giving good service and your section is always a mess,” which are ineffective.
Focus on concrete information related to observable behaviors and your restaurants SOPs or cultural expectations. Allow the team member to respond. They could have valid reasons as to why they are not able to perform to your expectations. Listen and clarify their responses by asking open-ended and non-confrontational questions.
I remember early in my career as a young 23-year-old manager, my D.O. at the time told me “improve your attitude when dealing with guest complaints or you will never be a GM!”
Well, this put me in a tail spin. Not only did I not know what he was talking about, I was not given specific guidance to work on. This feedback was too general and too personal for me to act on.
After weeks of stress, I ended up having a series of conversations with the D.O., and he was able to give me specific examples of my actions and detailed steps to improve upon each of them. Had he more thoroughly planned his initial feedback, we both would have had a more positive and productive experience.
Once you have alignment on the issues, focus on the solutions. You may determine the team member needs more training, needs more frequent direction or they just weren’t clear on the expectations. But the team member must walk away from the meeting with a clear understanding of where they are falling short and what they need to do to improve their performance.
You can also remind them that job improvement is a two-way street. As a manager, you also have the responsibility to give guidance and input. But their lane is larger than yours, and they must take action to improve their performance if they are to continue to grow in their role.
It is important to wrap up this conversation by gaining commitment and building a plan. Confirm that the team member understands the issues that have been presented. Review the topics and the specific actions and goals that the two of you have agreed to. Both you and the team member should have these agreements and goals written down or documented in some way, and they should match.
Be encouraging and supportive of the team member by letting them know you have confidence in them to make these improvements, and you are there to help them in any way you can. This is also a good time to thank the team member for the conversation, their open mindedness and ask them if they have any feedback for you regarding this conversation. This is a great opportunity to build trust and connection with your team member.
Double Down on Follow-Up
Following up on critical feedback is important if the employee is to succeed and move forward. Prior to leaving the first conversation, set a follow-up for some time within the next week. In that first follow-up, just have them confirm what they heard in the meeting, how they’re feeling about it and if they are having any immediate problem trying to resolve the issues.
You will then want to have a second follow-up to address progress toward the goals that were agreed upon. Depending on the type and level of feedback that was given, the staff member may
need a few weeks to incorporate the changes in their day-to-day work habits.
If you fail to follow up and recognize the improvements the employee is making or address improvements not being made, you’re sending the message that the issue wasn’t important and you will have missed an important team building opportunity.
Initially, the process may sound time-consuming. If you make the effort, though, I promise you, it gets easier over time, and you will see positive results.
When feedback is given in a well-planned, clear and empathetic way, it most often results in a stronger relationship of trust and honesty and a team member performing at a higher level in their job. This is a win-win for the team member and the restaurant.
You will find over time that if you and the rest of your managers are having these conversations consistently with the entire team, everyone will be working better together. As a result, there will generally be less need for these tough conversations to occur
Robby Kukler is passionate about fostering an exceptional hospitality model that succeeds for owners, guests and team members while embracing the fundamental hospitality principle of people taking care of people. With 40 “hands-on” years in the business and as the founding partner of acclaimed Fifth Group Restaurants, Robby’s track record for developing and growing successful – and enduring – restaurant concepts and companies has earned him and his teams countless industry awards and recognition. With the newly launched Kukler Restaurant Advisory (KRA), Robby harnesses this experience to show restaurateurs how to set and achieve their own KRA – Key Result Areas – for lasting stakeholder success. To learn more about KRA, contact Robby at email@example.com.