A simple approach to difficult conversations

Ruby Kolesky
Ruby Kolesky | February 23, 2020
Leadership
A simple approach to difficult conversations

About two years into my career as an engineering team leader I had to have a difficult conversation. The conversation was with Connor (not his real name), a junior engineer, who had recently joined our team.

Connor was consistently arriving to work late, taking long lunches, and leaving early. As his team lead I knew that I needed to talk to him, so I arranged a meeting: difficult conversations should always take place in person.

Not long before this, I had attended a leadership training course lead by Nick Reid, from Training for Change. So, I used the SCORE approach that Nick taught to plan the conversation ahead of time. Using SCORE I felt comfortable that I had a plan which would leave Connor feeling supported while still addressing the situation effectively.

When Connor and I met, I was able to confidently talk it through with him in under 10 minutes. After our chat was over, he even thanked me for it!

Let’s take a look at how I applied the SCORE approach to my conversation with Connor.

Using SCORE to structure a difficult conversation

Situation

To start a difficult conversation it is best to clearly describe the situation in as few words as possible.

For example: “Connor, I have noticed that you are regularly arriving to work at around 9:30, taking a one hour lunch, and leaving at around 4:30.”

Concern

Once you have clearly described the situation the next step is to explain why the situation is a cause for concern.

For example: “My concern is that you may not be working the hours specified in your employment contract.”

Options

Next, it is important that you involve the person by offering them a choice of options on how to proceed.

While it's okay for you to have a preference, only offer options if you are comfortable following through on any of them.

Remember, it is their comfort that is your top priority, not your own.

After you present the options it is important that you allow the person time to talk about why the situation is occurring, and how they would like to proceed.

For example: “Connor, I can think of three options for us to consider moving forward.

First, if there is a personal reason for working reduced hours, we can talk it through and get HR to update your contract and salary to match your actual hours.

Second, you could increase your hours to 40 a week.

Finally, if you feel you would rather work the additional hours from home, I would be happy to support you as long as we had clear expectations on how that would work.”

As I looked to Connor for a response he admitted to not paying attention to the hours he was working. He sheepishly apologised, and said that working the full week was his preferred option.

Risk

As you begin to round off the conversation it’s important that you explain what the risk is if the situation isn’t addressed.

This is also an opportunity to express the risk in a way that makes it clear you want to protect them from this risk.

For example: “I would hate for anyone in the team to think you weren’t putting in the same effort as everyone else. Your reputation is important to me.”

Expectation

In closing, it is important that the expectations moving forward are completely clear.

For example: “Thanks for your time. From tomorrow onwards my expectation is that you work 8 hours a day and take a 30 minute lunch break. I understand that sometimes things happen, and that there will be times you need to do personal things. I trust you to manage your time so that you work the full 40 hours each week. If you ever want to discuss this again, just let me know."

And there you have it. I walked out of that conversation feeling really good about how it had gone.

Needless to say, we never had an issue with Connor’s hours again. He went on to have a long career at the organisation, eventually becoming a well respected senior engineer.