In Part 1 of my series of articles on Navigating Tough Conversations: An Essential Trait of Great Leaders, I said a leader cannot be effective unless they are willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations and that effectiveness requires highly developed Emotional Intelligence (EQ).
In Navigating Tough Conversations – Part 2, I stated that I believe high EQ is required to muster the courage that is central to effectively navigate and more importantly to manage tough or uncomfortable conversations that will produce meaningful and successful outcomes.
In Part 3 of Navigating Tough Conversations, I will discuss the steps required to follow for a subordinate or an aspiring leader to navigate and manage what possibly may become an extremely challenging conversation with their superior (boss).
In order to better understand and develop our EQ to have these tough conversations, we need to go back to 1990, when two psychologists, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in an article coined the term “Emotional Intelligence” by describing it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” In 1995, Daniel Goleman wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, in which he defined what would evolve into the four EQ competencies understood today as: Self-awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness and Relationship Management. According to Goleman, he believed those competencies are not innate, they are learned abilities. Knowing this, I will now outline my recommendation for the plan and the steps to navigate and manage a potentially challenging conversation with someone when you are the subordinate.
Here are a few things to consider before entering into a potentially tough conversation with your boss:
- What is the purpose/your goal for the conversation?
- Put yourself in your boss’ position. What will be their ideal outcome of this conversation?
- What kind of preparation will the conversation need?
- When and where will you have the conversation?
- How will you manage the scope of the conversation?
- How will you manage your emotions during the conversation?
- How will you effectively finish the conversation?
- Carefully collect, review and verify all the information you will need for the conversation with your boss, include all the relevant documents and facts.
- Ask your boss for some time to have a conversation about an important matter. Typically, the sooner you have the conversation the less stressful the planning, which in turn will reduce your anxiety leading up to and during the actual conversation. If your boss asks the reason for the conversation, respond that you would prefer to hold off on the subject until you meet. If your boss presses to know the subject for the meeting, don’t hesitate, tell him/her straight away. Don’t be surprised if this exchange prompts your boss to say let’s meet now.
- It might be considered inappropriate and even rude, for you, the subordinate, to suggest meeting in your office or even a neutral space, so propose meeting in your boss’ office.
- At the start of the conversation, in a respectful and straight forward way, state the purpose (goal) for the conversation, provide your boss with a brief opening comment, such as:
- Ask if you may be candid and that you would like to give some feedback or suggestion. If your boss tells you he/she is not interested in your feedback, do not challenge. Accept the rebuff and thank your boss for his/her time. Consider the meeting ended and directly leave their office. Based on this type of caustic and destructive comment you may want to seriously ask yourself, is this the boss you want to squander your valuable time and energy working for?
- You are asking for an increase in your compensation.
- You are requesting approval for a transfer to another area within the company.
- You are resigning your employment (this will be covered in detail in steps 12 and 15).
- Assuming you have permission to continue, carefully explain your feedback, your reasons for a salary increase or request for transfer. Be sure to have examples if you are giving feedback or complaining about your boss’ perceived negative behavior.
If you are requesting a salary increase you must be prepared to offer logical justification for a raise. Saying you need more money will almost never be an acceptable reason. You must clearly articulate your rationale for more money, e.g. you have been assigned substantially increased responsibilities, or you have learned people in similar positions in similar companies in your geographic area are earning greater compensation. When talking compensation with your boss, be certain to never commit the greatest no-no by comparing your compensation with another employee in your organization.
When asking for a transfer be certain to provide your logical and meaningful reasoning, e.g. opportunity to learn new skills, opportunity to help the company grow and be more efficient or work closer to home.
- Patiently and attentively listen to your boss’ response(s).
- If the conversation turns negative or there is push-back regarding your feedback, request or other statements, be aware of your emotions. Remain calm and resist becoming defensive or angry.
- If necessary, in a respectful way, restate the purpose for the conversation and repeat your feedback, complaint, request or statement(s) in a firm and direct voice. Do not escalate the conversation. Maintaining your composure requires “Self-Awareness” and “Self-Management,” which according to Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis are two of the four “Domains or Competencies” of Emotional Intelligence. Further stated by Lindsay Kolowich, in her article 20 Signs You’re Emotionally Intelligent (And Why It Matters For Your Career), she stated, when you have “Emotional Self-Awareness: You have a solid understanding of your own feelings and emotions, your strengths and weaknesses, and what drives them.” In addition, she wrote if you have “Emotional Self-Control: You feel bad moods and impulses just like anyone else, but you don’t act on them; in fact, you can control them. For example, instead of blowing up at people when you get angry, you let them know what’s wrong and what the solution is. You have the ability to wait until your emotions past so you can respond from a place of reason.”
- Reflect carefully on what your boss is saying before you respond to any additional push-back or negative comments.
- If your boss pushes harder and becomes confrontational or you believe you are being blind-sided with negative comments that are extraneous to the purpose of the conversation, do not let yourself be drawn into unrelated discussion(s). Respectfully, but assertively state you wish to remain on the conversation at hand.
- Try to perceive and understand your emotions and how your body is reacting to the push-back or negative confrontation. If you begin to feel flushed, hot or cold or your breathing speeds up recognize they are signs you need to slow things down. Do so by firmly re-stating your feedback or your request(s).
- If you are resigning from the company, do not hesitate, state you are resigning in a firm and direct voice. Tell your boss you are giving the appropriate notice time (in the USA, depending on the employee’s level, a minimum of two weeks is typical). Tell your boss you plan to complete all your current work and you are prepared to transition your responsibilities to the person the company designates as your replacement. If you prepared a written Letter of Resignation, this would be the time to hand it over to your boss. If your boss has further questions or concerns regarding your decision to leave the organization, you have the option to give your reasons for quitting or you need only state that your decision is final, and any continued conversation will not change your mind. If you find yourself in this situation, the key here is never burn any bridges by doing or saying something you may later regret. Do not be surprised if your boss accepts your resignation and tells you that you should leave today. He/she may even ask you to immediately return your company ID, tell you to clean out your desk and return any other company property you may have.
- Continue to manage your emotions and do not waver or second guess your final decision and/or action(s).
- Accept how your boss ends the conversation. Do not linger. Clearly consider it a positive event if your boss accepts and considers your feedback constructive and says he/she plans to work on changing the behaviors that you brought to his/her attention. If your request for a salary increase or a company transfer ends affirmatively, your tough conversation has certainly had a successful outcome. If the conversation does not end as you hoped, you must at this time accept your boss’ decision. Any additional conversation(s) initiated by you should not happen until you have fully analyzed this tough conversation. Keep in mind, in matters of compensation or transfer, your boss may not be the final decision maker, thus your boss may not have a solution readily available. If he/she says they will look into it further, consider that a positive sign that your request is still on the table. Ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up on your request, so that you have a timeline.
If at any point your boss informs you that your request for a compensation increase or transfer is denied, you should have already decided your next step, e.g. accept, appeal or consider other options. One option might be to look for fulfillment with another employer.
- If your boss accepts your resignation and asks you to immediately pack your things and leave the building, do not hesitate, follow his/her directive and comply with the next steps in the separation process. Remember, as previously stated, continue to be professional and don’t do or say anything you may regret.
- Regardless of the final result, always remain calm; politely thank your boss for his/her time and exit their office.
Questions: Do you agree with this process to manage tough conversations when you are the subordinate? Do you have any suggestion(s) on how to manage tough conversations with your boss?