*Today’s post is a continuation of themes we have been discussing over the last few weeks. We strongly encourage you to read the previous two posts before beginning today’s content.*
In this article, we’ll continue the discussion about our “Coaching Continuum,” and specifically focus on what we refer to as yellow and red conversations.
Our heart in having these more serious conversations along our coaching continuum is not because we’re building a case for why someone should be fired. We’re having these conversations to help them stay! In our litigious society, it’s easy to be confused, but the posture and approach that come out of those two motivations couldn’t be more different.
In any corrective conversation, our role is to represent God’s heart to reconcile and restore. “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” says 2 Cor. 5:18. The ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. People don’t drift into unity or healthiness. It doesn’t happen by chance. It only happens if we accept our responsibility and take an active role in bringing it about.
We want to love people well, and while some wouldn’t naturally think of these conversations as loving, they are. Proverbs 13:24 says “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” If you fail to correct and discipline someone under your leadership, not only is it not loving them – it’s hating them. That’s strong! Every major translation uses that exact word: hate. The King James Version says it this way: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” Hateth! I wasn’t sure what “chasteneth him betimes” meant, so I looked it up. The definition of chasteneth is “to temporarily inflict pain for the purpose of reclaiming the offender.” It is for their benefit, with the goal of restoration. Betimes means “before the usual or expected time; early.” So, it’s saying we’re hating our people if we aren’t willing to correct and discipline for the sake of restoration, and do that early or before what is typical in the rest of the world.
Peacemakers vs. Peacekeepers
We must make every effort to live at peace with people, but there is a big difference between peacemakers and peacekeepers. Peacekeepers believe peace and avoiding conflict are the same thing – but they aren’t. People won’t passively drift to true peace and unity. Leaders must actively work for it. We must be committed to resolve relational conflict regardless of how bad it feels in the moment to us as leaders. In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Other translations say it this way: “God blesses those who work for peace…” Notice Jesus didn’t bless peacekeepers, but only those who are willing to actively work for peace.
“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about the revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.”
Successful people face into problems and negative reality. Part of that is this mind-set and attitude that facing it is going to be a good thing in the end, not a bad thing. Remember this doesn’t have to be adversarial; it’s about helping them become successful.
Getting To The Root
One of the most important parts of these conversations is the meeting-before-the-meeting where you and your leader think through the issues you’ve noticed to diagnose the root cause. A doctor’s goal isn’t treating symptoms, but addressing the underlying cause. Typically when you find yourself in the yellow or red, there may be lots of things that have you concerned or even frustrated. Look at each one and ask: Why are they doing that? Where could the disconnect be? What would cause them to act that way? It’s our responsibility to sort through exactly what is bothering us about their behavior, identify common themes, and boil it down to the root issue. Nobody can work on more than one or two major things at one time, so you must get it down to the one or two root issues that are the biggest threat to their job.
Sometimes when you get to this level, you may uncover that the issue is they simply aren’t a functional fit for the role. It could have been a mistake in hiring or promotion, the role may have outgrown them, or their circumstances changed. If they can’t do that job, could they be successful in another role? It’s easy to squint on this front, especially when you love them, so we think through this carefully. First, do we still believe they’re a cultural fit? Is there a role open they could thrive in? Would you be thrilled to get that person on your team if you were the other manager? Finally, would you be willing to put your reputation on the line for them? If there is hesitation on any of those questions, we’d be doing them a disservice by moving them to another role.
More often, the issue isn’t about functional fit or simple behavior modification, but a heart issue. The most common root causes are typically related to one of these areas: unity, growth, excellence, generosity, attitude, submission, trust, or humility.
Here’s an example of how that diagnosis discussion might go: You and your leader identify 6 symptoms that are issues. Through conversation, you uncover 3 of those are directly related to a poor attitude. 2 other symptoms center around a trust issue between the employee and a teammate. After discussion, you might decide the remaining issue of the 6 you identified is unrelated and not near as important, so you both decide to consciously set that one aside for the moment and extend grace on it in order to put all your focus on the two major issues that could cost them their job if they aren’t corrected in the near future.
The final step is to decide the best way to articulate the root issue(s) using a few key words that they’ll understand and can use to recognize similar moments and self-correct in the future. Provide enough detail and examples for the employee to get a clear picture of what you mean, but not too much that it overwhelms them. We never want to bludgeon someone with the truth.
Our Role & Their’s
We bring clarity: Any time we’re having one of these major conversations, we see one of our primary duties as bringing clarity. We want to ensure we’re on the same page with that person on how important the issue is and our expectations moving forward. Do they know where they stand? If you slid the coaching continuum diagram in front of them and asked them to point at where they believe they’re at, would you agree? It’s about eliminating confusion. And that goes both ways; we don’t want them to think something is heavier than it really is, but we also don’t want them to think something isn’t a big deal when it could cost them their job. Remember, no surprises!
They bring commitment: The responsibility of the person we’re talking with is to acknowledge there is a problem, own their part of it, and unambiguously commit to change. To have real hope for improvement, they must admit they need to change. If they don’t agree there is a problem, can’t take personal responsibility, or aren’t able to provide a sincere commitment to change then any hope of the situation getting bettter is simply wishful – and therefore they can’t continue. Some people may need a day or two to go home and reflect, but we can’t allow them to rejoin the team until they bring clear and absolute commitment to change.
3 Types of Documented Conversations
Verbal Warning: These are for corrections that are more than 1°, but still minor enough that making them sign a formal document would be far too heavy-handed. A verbal warning is a specialized tool, and you must be thoroughly convinced it’s the right tool before you use it. If you’re wondering if it should be a verbal or a written warning, it should absolutely be written. We do tell the person we’ll be documenting the conversation and sending it to HR to put in their file. We don’t send the employee a copy, unless they ask for one. It’s helpful to create talking points beforehand to organize your thoughts and ensure you communicate clearly, and then you can simply email those to HR afterward along with facts about how the employee responded.
Written Warning: These are for when we need to see dramatic improvement in an area over a reasonable period of time. The tone of these conversations might sound like this: “This subject is important, but please understand me: we are not in an emergency here. There are no blinking red lights, no wailing sirens, and no secret agents cleaning out your office while you’re in here. Are you with me? What I am saying, is that over a reasonable period of time we need to see dramatic improvement in this area. The only thing I’m needing today is your strong commitment to improvement. Deal?” (Hybels). They should feel an appropriate amount of pressure, but not like they’re being interrogated and prepared for dismissal. Putting it in writing and giving them a copy gives them a chance to review it later to ensure they understood and remember what we discussed. Asking for a signature helps them understand the seriousness of the issue. During these conversations, it’s best to start with the paperwork face-down, talk through the situation so they hear your heart, and then present the paperwork as a summary of what you just shared. A formal follow-up is scheduled on the calendar one week out to come back together to ensure you’re on the same page with the progress they’re making. You should repeat those scheduled follow-ups until you both agree the issue is behind you and they’re back in the green.
911 Call: This is a special type of written warning, where we require immediate turn-around. In this case, we have zero tolerance for a repeat offense. During this conversation we must be direct and unambiguous about the seriousness of the issue, so we might say, “This is your 911 call. What we’re dealing with right here, right now, carries with it the top level of urgency and importance. If your behavior doesn’t change – immediately – you’ll be asked to leave our staff. This is what I want you to remember when you walk out of the room today: Nine-one-one. Are we clear?” (Hybels) In these situations there should also be follow-ups scheduled on the calendar, but if it is this serious it is typically more appropriate for those to be daily for some time before you transition to weekly follow-ups.
Wrapping It Up
Ideally this is a progressive process, but where someone is on the continuum depends on the circumstances. As system-builders, we’d love for this to always follow a clean, predetermined process, but loving people well requires us to adapt to the specifics of the situation. There are times when the best thing for the person is to jump straight to a written warning or even a 911 call. For example, if someone is being divisive, that is something that has to change immediately. If we blindly follow this as a linear process we can hurt people by not being honest about how critical the issue is and what our expectations are. We’re trying to apply the appropriate amount of force to help them make the correction necessary so we can come back together. Remember, no surprises!
There is only one rule when it comes to these major conversations: never do it alone. Unlike 1° corrections which are done in the moment without the need to collaborate beforehand, anything in the yellow or red we must seek wise counsel and talk through it with our leader before we go into the conversation.
For yellow conversations, you and your leader can decide whether you will deliver the message together or if it’s more appropriate for you to do that alone. However, in red conversations you should always have your leader by your side when you meet with the employee (or another senior leader, if your leader is unavailable). That second person with you adds support, helps ensure the communication is clear, and provides another perspective on how we can help reconcile and restore that family member as a healthy part of the team.
Whether people respond and make the change or not largely depends on whether you believe they will. That’s something we just can’t fake. People are so good at sensing whether their leader is for them or not. If they believe you’re against them, they won’t receive it.
If we really are hopeless, we should be having a totally different type of conversation with them – about termination, not correction. Sometimes we realize we’re hopeless because we should have had these more serious corrective conversations some time ago, and by not doing that we’re to blame for their failure as much as they are. We must learn from that, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the present reality and wipe the slate clean or give them a reset. The past cannot be rewritten. The decision on how to move forward must be made from an honest assessment of whether more effort and time will bring about a different result, or if we’re simply being wishful. Based on where we stand today, what is the next right action for them, the team, and everyone involved?
We have these corrective conversations because we still believe they have it in them to turn it around and be successful here. We must tell them that! Tell them we care about them, and we’re not trying to run them off – we’re trying to help them stay! They have the power at any given moment to say: “This is not how the story is going to end.” Anyone who is successful here long-term has come to that moment, and not only survived it, but grown from it. That’s what we’re hoping for every step of the way.
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