Posted March 27, 2022 by Mark Perna
Constructive criticism is hard to give and harder to receive, especially when you’re working remotely. Here are five ways to make it a retention opportunity rather than just a corrective moment. Mark’s article, “5 Tips On How To Handle Tough Conversations With Remote Workers,” published at Forbes.com on March 22, 2022.
Things were different when I began my career. If I told someone that I was “working from home,” they’d wink and say, “Sure you are.” The assumption was that I was basically taking a day off. Thanks to the pandemic, those days are gone.
But now that we’re entering our third year of widespread remote work, perhaps it’s time to hit the pause button and ask whether we’re working remotely as well as we can. That’s especially true when we think about how we manage our work relationships now that we aren’t meeting as often face-to-face. There may be people in your organization who were great managers when dealing with an in-person workforce who are now struggling to offer guidance and mentorship in a remote work environment. For instance, what happens when, as a manager, you need to have a “tough conversation” with an employee working remotely?
“While the approach for these conversations is generally the same for in person and remote, remote work environments do require more structured and regular communications rhythms to ensure that everyone is supported and is able to do their best work,” says Jen L’Estrange, founder and managing director of Red Clover, an outsource HR firm. “Often, we see managers come to us with a need for a tough conversation that candidly could have been avoided had they been proactive and managed their regular communications more intentionally.”
What follows are five tips for how to turn those tough conversations with remote workers into productive feedback sessions that enhance—rather than hurt—staff retention.
There’s a lot of pressure on managers these days to not just perform, but also help ensure employees stick around amidst the Great Resignation. Managers need to tune in even more to the warning signs that an employee might be having the kind of trouble that warrants a difficult conversation—before it gets out of hand. Unfortunately, these warning signs may be harder to spot when employees are working from home.
Some red flags that might signal a need for candid feedback, says L’Estrange, include missed deadlines or incomplete work, poor communication with colleagues, customers or vendors, substandard work quality, and in some cases, an unexplained change in behavior or performance that you feel merits a focused conversation.
“The warning signs in a remote office aren’t all that different from in person,” she says. “As they say, bad news travels faster than good news. Just remember not to assume anything until you know why something is happening.”
If the goal of any communication is to ensure that the message is received effectively, then a tough conversation should never, ever be a surprise.
“Whether the employee is working in person or remotely, it’s important to make it clear beforehand that it’s going to be a difficult conversation,” says L’Estrange.
That’s why it’s critical to think through what you want to share, how you would like the information to be received and why you think it’s important—ahead of time. All of this should be part of your preparation process.
This is especially true if the manager has little to no experience delivering constructive criticism. They should prepare by writing up their feedback and reviewing it with someone else who is not closely involved in the situation.
L’Estrange also recommends talking through particularly challenging feedback with a trusted colleague to help check your language and tone—something that can be very helpful in moderating your emotional response and helping you bring your best self to the conversation. Role-playing the conversation with a peer before the meeting itself can also be a powerful preparation strategy.
“Remember the goal: you want the message to be received, integrated and acted upon,” says L’Estrange. “If we show up in the room with our own unresolved issues, it only undermines that goal.”
One of the mistakes any manager can make is treating every employee the same when giving them tough feedback. People’s needs change over time and how we create psychological safety for someone who is in their first five years of work experience may be different from someone who has 35 years under their belt.
“Seeing people as individuals with different communication styles and preferences is important,” says L’Estrange. “I adjust how I give feedback to meet the needs of the person in front of me and I adjust my expectations in terms of response as well.”
Another variable to consider is whether the situation merits having that tough feedback over Zoom—or in person.
“There are challenges when it comes to difficult conversations via Zoom,” says L’Estrange. “It’s harder to gauge non-verbal feedback, WIFI can be choppy and that can affect tone and even voice speed. Sometimes, the employee is not well versed in technology or is working in a shared home office with less privacy. All these factors should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to bring the conversation into the office or not.”
Managers should also embrace flexibility to change course if needed. If an online discussion proves difficult, they need to be willing to hit pause and reschedule for a later time for an in-person conversation.
This speaks again to the importance of prepping the employee that you intend to have a tough conversation with them and getting their input on whether that will best be handled online or in person.
Another critical factor when it comes to having tough conversations with remote workers is establishing some level of mutual trust. You can’t have a successful critical conversation without it.
L’Estrange says that while it’s natural for everyone to be defensive at first, a strong professional relationship will allow you to cut through the immediate reaction and talk about how to work together to change and improve the situation.
It’s also important to separate the criticism of what has happened—the event or the thing—from the person. “We aren’t criticizing or devaluing our colleagues,” says L’Estrange. “We care about them. We are simply providing some feedback on something that didn’t go well and that we would like to see happen differently next time.”
A tough conversation that results in a positive change reinforces the relationship and fosters trust and retention, she says. On the other hand, a tough conversation that devolves into blaming the person for the outcome will lead to disengagement and eventually departure, one way or the other.
The truth is that sometimes managers get too close to an issue to be able to give effective feedback. That might manifest itself as an overly emotional response or even just an inability to prepare for the conversation effectively.
If a manager is very upset, angry or just generally not able to bring their best into the room, bringing in a third party—either another manager or someone from human resources—to have the tough conversation might be best to bring balance to the situation.
The most important message to convey here is that the reason you’re making the time to give critical feedback: it’s because you care.
“It’s important to show that we care about the employee’s performance, their progress and who they are as a member of the organization,” says L’Estrange. “Ensuring that it’s clearly understood by the employee creates the psychological safety needed for them to effectively receive the feedback, integrate it and act on it.”
The ability to hold a tough remote conversation that empowers rather than discourages the recipient is an imperative skill for managers today. The same is also true if you’re the one receiving the feedback. Receiving it with grace and then acting on it will mark you as a professional more interested in growth than in protecting your ego.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to reset our approach to online conversations with employees. Tough conversations don’t have to threaten retention—in fact, handled correctly they can enhance an employee’s loyalty. Everyone should walk away from the discussion feeling like a vital part of the organization not just today, but also well into the future.