11 Telltale Signs That You Are Not Talking About What Matters Most

Recently one of my trainees went through her annual performance review. She received an unsatisfactory rating in one area because her manager told her that she was too argumentative. When she asked what that meant, she was told that she asked too many questions. Not willing to concede the point, she refused to sign the review and asked to meet with the VP of Human Resources.

As she, her manager, and the VP explored the situation, my trainee explained that the only reason that she asked questions was to clarify and to affirm that she had understood. She said that she wanted to insure she always performed up to expectation. She asked, “Isn’t that what managers do? They make themselves available to answer questions and provide clarity to the people that work for them.” She also added that not once in 20 years had she ever not done what she was asked. Thankfully the review was changed.

This recent experience made me think about all the situations that occur that should signal that our conversations need more attention. Here are a few situations that indicate more focus on communication is needed. Additionally, reviewing how to hold REAL conversations will help in overcoming these common challenges.

1. Lack of productivity. If your directions are unclear, then you may not receive what you expected. Unfortunately, we often don’t know that we were misunderstood until we don’t receive the results we wanted. Taking the time to clearly identify your expectations, specific milestones, and concrete deadlines can increase efficiency and reduce rework and redundancy.

2. No trust. A lack of trust often arises from the lack of integrity on the part of others. Sometimes leaders will say one thing and then do another. For example, I know of a leader who told her people that she could not assist her team with the completion of an important project that was due at the end of the day. She told her team that she would be in meetings the entire afternoon. On a break, one of her team members left the building where they worked to retrieve something she had left in her car. As she retrieved her item, she noticed her manager getting out of the car of another manager with armloads of recently purchased Christmas gifts. This kind of behavior does not inspire loyalty and trust when things get tough.

3. Lagging accountability. If employees have never been held accountable, they often view a greater emphasis on personal responsibility with contempt. Then they may attempt to push the boundaries to see if they can get away with the same old behavior. If you want to increase individual accountability to improve performance, then you need to hold the conversation or things will stay the same. Holding a conversation that ends with creating a plan to improve results is the outcome that you desire.

4. Lack of people skills. Often when training new managers, they will express their frustration in having to deal with their people. These managers were promoted because they were great individual contributors. Now, in their new position, they often lack the skills to deal with potentially difficult people or poor performers. Coming from a new and highly uncomfortable place, these managers often avoid holding productive performance conversations or they give feedback to everyone hoping the poor performer will get the message. Then other employees become resentful of those managers who never hold the difficult performance conversation with those who need the feedback. Everyone remains frustrated and nothing improves.   

5. Safety concerns. Everyone wants to work in a safe environment. Sometimes when the pressure is on to meet demanding deadlines, corners are cut, important safety protocols are abandoned, or people look for ways to shortcut established processes. Recently at an electric utility company, some workers lifted a heavy piece of equipment improperly, the machinery fell, and an employee was killed. Understanding how to hold difficult conversations about difficult issues is critical in creating a culture of safety.

6. Absence of conflict resolution skills. When people get together there is always an opportunity for disagreement. When folks can’t agree, some meet fire with fire. Still others meet fire with water—they run away or go along to get along. This kind of behavior does not promote the kind of dialogue required to share different points of view and to create effective solutions to pressing problems. People need to have the skills that create contribution and cooperation through conversation that increases the likelihood of success.

7. Lack of collaborative teamwork. Although people have to work together, they often compete for the same resources to accomplish their work. This competition creates a “silo-mentality” that moves people to avoid working together. Turfism ends up ruling the day and leads to people withholding information rather than everyone learning and solving problems that are mutually beneficial.  

Years ago I was working for a cable company who was getting ready to launch high-speed data services, video-on-demand, and high-speed internet to their customers. They were having a hard time identifying the challenges that they would face. I knew that another region had just gone through the same experience, so I recommended that they call the GM from that region to gain some insight into their current situation. I was shocked at their response, “We can’t do that! We don’t want them to think that we don’t know what we are doing.” So much for learning.

8. Change challenges. Often when change is needed you will be met with resistance. The challenge arises when you need to communicate continuously and consistently to a number of different audiences. Sometimes leaders will express their public support while privately expressing their displeasure and disagreement with the change initiative. Their behavior not only sows the seeds of doubt, but leads to skepticism and disbelief that stymies any attempt to change the current results. People need to know how to talk about what is working and not working, and they need to be able to confront the naysayers about their behavior.

9. No appreciation. Employees look forward to hearing and knowing that they have made a valued contribution. Unfortunately the only time that some people may hear anything about their performance is when they haven’t met expectations. Learning to catch people doing the right things and knowing how to recognize them in public or private can have a huge impact on morale, loyalty, motivation, and performance. Good leaders know how to recognize and appreciate others.

10. Lack of vision. People don’t often know how what they do contributes to the success of the organization. Creating a clear vision that helps others to see how they add value is imperative to the motivation of everyone.

11. Lack of employee engagement. This had been the hot topic for the last couple of years. The lack of engagement usually arises because the leader doesn’t know how to hold the conversation with the employee about what matters to them and what would improve the quality of their work. And the employee may not have enough clarity to know what would add more purpose, direction, or fulfillment to their career. Without either individual taking the initiative to talk about what matters most, the engagement never improves, so managers become frustrated with a lack of productivity, and the dissatisfied employee leaves to pursue other opportunities.   

These telltale signs are likely only the tip of the iceberg. And yet, if you are going to improve your work and your personal life, you must be able and willing to talk about what matters most. You need to identify what is not working and then do something about it. If you can do this, then opportunities will be created for great things to happen. Learning to hold the difficult conversation and talk about what matters most may be the most important thing for your career to insure your success.

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