How to do a Negative 1-2-1 to Create a Positive Response

Part of your responsibility as a manager or leader is to deliver messages that might not be well received, but that are important for a person’s development.

The trouble is a lot of managers tend to try and avoid delivering these messages, or deliver them in a way that means the person leaves the meeting demotivated and feeling rubbish or without the message having been clearly conveyed.

By the end of this article you will have an understanding of what happens when people hear negative things about themselves, you will be able to deliver a negative message in a way which bypasses a potential negative response and you will feel much more confident in your ability to do so.

Let’s think of some examples:

There are many ways in which people behave that mean we have to address what they do or how they do it and divert them from behaving in that way moving forward.

So what happens when people hear negative things about themselves? If you think about the last time you heard something negative about yourself you can probably recall that the little voice inside your head wakes up immediately and responds in a certain way. This is usually defensively, or angrily or it berates you internally for not being good enough and beats you up so that you feel dreadful. The first 2 responses, those of anger and defensiveness tend to mean that you don’t continue to listen to the rest of the conversation as you’re so busy thinking about why it’s someone else’s fault that you behave that way. Because of this reaction, what is said to you that provokes that response remains as a vivid memory in your brain but what was said afterwards is generally a complete blank.

In order to deliver a negative message and get a positive response then, we need to bypass the part of the brain that is concerned with this response, and that’s often referred to as the chimp brain.

The chimp brain is the very old part of our brain that is concerned with keeping us safe. Now that was really useful in the old days when we needed to be much more alert to predators and dangers but now it has transferred its attention to fear for our self esteem and social standing preservation. So anything that affects us in those areas, or might affect our self esteem and social standing alerts the chimp brain. The chimp brain responds emotionally, and very quickly, in order to warn us to avoid any danger. The problem with that is that when the chimp brain responds, the brain takes blood from the rational part of our brain in order to feed the chimp, so it can protect us. But unfortunately this doesn’t protect us as often as it thinks it’s protecting us, in fact it can really get in the way. When we’re dealing with performance or behavioural issues then we need to be talking to the rational part of the brain, as the chimp gets in the way of our rational understanding about what needs to be done.

The chimp brain is very alert and will respond to things like tone of voice, angle of head. It is very alert to patronising as that’s not good for our self esteem, it’s alert to criticism for the same reason. It’s especially alert to criticism in public as it’s concerned with our social standing. It’s very alert to criticism regarding our performance because that concerns how it feels about itself too.

In order to bypass the chimp we need to appeal to the rational mind with the very first thing we say in delivering the negative message. If we alert the chimp brain then it might already be too late. This means addressing negative messages as positives, which sounds fluffy and nonsense but really is the best way to get through to a person that what they’re doing is wrong or unacceptable or not good enough.

People often say:

they really need to know what they’re doing is wrong though, so I can’t not tell them that.

But here’s the important thing. What you need to decide, before you have the conversation, is what result you want from the conversation. Do you want the person to know what they are doing is wrong, or do you want behavioural change? What’s more important? Because if it’s behavioural change you’re looking for then you need to focus on creating that, rather than on making the other person feel bad about their behaviour. Yes, feeling bad about their behaviour may produce behavioural change, but that will only work for the short term and in the process they will think negatively of you. People only change if they want to so you need to give them reasons for being how you want them to be.

In order to explain this clearly I’m going to go through a few examples. First off, bad attitude.

If you have to speak to someone about a bad attitude or not going the extra mile in the way that’s the culture of your workplace then you need to be aware of the fact that this is quite a woolly topic and unless some guidance has been provided previously on what is expected then you can’t just expect them to know that this is important. You’re going to need some examples of what is expected and some evidence to back up what you’re saying, and you’re going to need to have them on the tip of your tongue. You don’t want to be sorting through notes or checking emails from others as all of this gives time for the chimp brain to activate. Bear in mind that some people need more explaining regarding what is expected of them than others. Managers often just expect their team to know things without being told. That’s not good or clear management or leadership. The best thing you can do, as always, is have the Expectations Conversation. It clarifies so much and makes conversations like this so much less likely and much easier when you do have to have them.

Anyway, a conversation on attitude as part of the 1-2-1 might go something like this. Having addressed more positive issues first, I would link this more difficult message into something that the person wants. So I might talk about their aspirations in the business for the next 6 months, year or 5 years if appropriate. I might then suggest that they are absolutely in charge of whether this happens or not and say that I firmly believe that they are capable of rising to that level. I would then say, “what you need to do is begin with the end in mind then, you know what you want so how do you think you need to behave in order for you to get that?

They might say, “work really hard, get results, pass exams”. And then this gives you the opportunity to pick up on what they say. Yes absolutely all that but there’s more too, because Commitment to team success is important too and by showing others how committed you are to the team you will get even more kudos and respect, by having a great attitude in the workplace, or towards last minute work, by standing out as someone who’s willing to go the extra mile you will end up with a high performing team. Bosses always want someone who raises the performance of the whole team over an individual star player. A team can accomplish so much more than one person.”

“How do you feel you rank in terms of those things right now? What happens when some work comes in late and it’s urgent and someone in the team needs to step up and get it done? Do you do that? Do you always have a great can do attitude?” You say kindly, “I’m not judging you, I’m asking you what you think, because you need to be able to make sure you’re absolutely on top of these kinds of things if you want to get where you say you want to get. That doesn’t just happen because you want it. You have got to actively make that happen. Because people notice what you’re like every day not just in the few months before you apply for a promotion. I can support you with this. So what do you think you need to work on in order to make sure that that’s in the bag? That there’s no discussion about you not getting what you want? Where do you really need to put in the effort now?”

If they come up with it themselves then all well and good. What you do then is praise them for being right and encourage them to put it into practise straight away, saying that you will check in with them once a fortnight or so to see how they’re getting on and provide feedback and where they’re doing well and where they could perhaps up their game.

If they don’t come up with it themselves you can say, ‘Yes, those areas, and you might want to make sure that the next last minute job that comes in you volunteer for, as that’s the stuff that really gets you noticed as a team player. You don’t have to work on every last minute job, but you do have to pull your weight if you want to get noticed for the right reasons.”

At the end of the conversation fire them up. “I know you can do this”, “I look forward to seeing your progress”, “If you need any help or guidance come straight to me”, “You can trust me to help you get where you want to be, but you have to do the work. I’ll support you however I can.”

In this example the person has left the meeting with the message that they really need to step up on last minute jobs, and be a team player in order to get what they want. You can apply it to whatever the issue is with the person. They have been motivated to perform better not chastised for not performing well so far. What’s more, you have agreed an action plan going forward, created trust between you and them, created a platform whereby you can give them ongoing feedback and made them hungry for success. I’d say that’s a great 1-2-1. 1-2-1s are about the results you get from them. Think ahead of yours, prepare for the results you want not just the simple message on the table.

Okay the next example is about a lack of results. A team member isn’t achieving what they need to.

Again, you need to focus on the behavioural change you want to see rather than the message. Believe me, the person will know they’re not hitting target. So being taken into a room and told they’re not hitting target for 15 minutes will be excruciating for them. It will demotivate and embarrass them. So focus on helping them achieve, not telling them they haven’t achieved.

I would say something like this, “Bob, we both know your results haven’t been what we want them to be for the past few months. I’m not going to labour that point. We’re here today to find a way forward for you to achieve what you want to achieve and get over any challenges you’re facing. We can only do this if you’re completely honest with me about what you’re doing, what’s going well, and what isn’t going quite so well. Together we can find a way that’s going to work for you but we both need to be honest with each other, okay?“

“So, what’s going well, what are you pleased with?” Yes, great, I agree, absolutely.

“What’s not going so well, where are your blockages/barriers? Where does it start going wrong?” Listen, nod, make notes, don’t interrupt and say where you think it’s going wrong.

“Right how can we address this?” Let him speak first, then you can speak and say how you would address it, if he hasn’t got close to that.

You see there’s so much forward momentum there. You’re supporting and advising, being firm but kind. This kind of leadership gets you results. It’s not mean being firm, it’s clear and helpful. When you’re in trouble at work, not getting the results you want, you need someone who’s going to help you achieve what you need, not someone who’s just going to tell you what you already know and not provide any coaching or support, or someone who’s just going to make you feel bad or that you’re letting the team down. Watch your tone of voice here, sympathy is not a tone of voice that’s required here, that’s patronising. Motivational, firm but kind, that’s what you’re looking for. Kind tone of voice does not equal patronising. If you think you fall into a patronising tone of voice sometimes then practise whenever you can and get feedback from others so you can get it right. Remember how sensitive the chimp brain is.

When you’re talking about how to address Bob’s issues, you need to allow his ideas to be on the table first, that’s coaching. “What do you think you should be doing more of? What do you think you should be doing less of? What do you think will happen if you put this into practise?”

Then, if they miss anything out you can add it in, “What I have found helpful in the past is to do this, or that. What others find helpful is to make sure that this is done first and foremost, then they concentrate on the rest…” If they cover anything then you praise, same as in the earlier example, help them believe in themselves. “Yep that’s it, great, I knew you knew what to do, you have just been getting a bit bogged down with this process, so now we know what’s been causing the issue you should be good to go.”

“What I’m going to do to support you is check in with you every week, if that’s okay. That way, if you hit any barriers we can get them out of your way quickly. So if you come across something you don’t know how to deal with, either come and chat straight away, or note it down so we can address it when we meet every Monday afternoon say. Is that good with you? Yes, great. This conversation has been good Bob, I really feel like we’ve opened up here and that we’re in a much better position going forwards. Remember I’ve got your back, so tell me, be honest with me, don’t worry about it. It’s better to be honest so we can sort stuff out and move on. Okay, see you Monday!”

No one would leave that meeting not feeling supported, motivated, happy. That’s the aim of a 1-2-1. If your 1-2-1s leave people feeling demotivated or unhappy then you are not doing your job as well as you can. You need to take responsibility as the leader to make change in a positive way.

Okay, those are the two main ‘underperformance’ issues we get asked about so they should have been helpful for a lot of you. I did it yesterday for someone going into a meeting in a couple of days time. Preparation is key, get your thinking cap on, it doesn’t take too long, but it is important if you want the end result of a happy motivated team member who’s up for behavioural change.

The final example I’m going to talk about is when you need to tell them that some of their behaviour is unacceptable.

When we are going to tell someone something that, realistically and understandably, is going to make them defensive we need to remember that and we need to prepare accordingly. In this instance you need to be thoroughly in control the conversation. You need to deliver your message in your opening statement and make it very clear that the behaviour is unacceptable.

Obviously there may be HR issues here so tread carefully and take advice if you need it. If this is the first conversation that’s been had about the issue then this is how to best get the information across.

“Bob, I just need a quick conversation with you about something that has drawn my attention. I’ve noticed on quite a few occasions now that when you are in meetings and something is said that you don’t agree with you are really quite dismissive to the person who’s spoken. It’s really important that everyone feels able to speak out and share their opinions so I need you to be open to all opinions no matter what you’re thinking inside. Do you understand what I mean when I say dismissive?

If they say Yes - then you need to clarify what they understand by the term, so ask them. “Ok that’s great, just for clarification then, what is it that you do that comes across as dismissive?”

Then if they say the things that you agree with you agree, ‘Yes, definitely, that’s right, absolutely.”

If they say no - then you need to give examples. You can say, “this is what happens when, say Joan, says something you don’t agree with. You immediately push your chair back and lean right back, you do a big sigh and press your lips together like this - you can act it out for him, perhaps having a bit of a laugh about it. If you do laugh you need to make it clear that this isn’t undermining what you’re saying. You can say, “I’m laughing at my acting but this is a serious message, Bob. It’s got to stop. Joan’s opinions are valid and important to the team and by acting like this you’re not being a team player. It’s vital that we’re all team players, encouraging each other to be the best.”

You might want to make Bob feel a bit more positive about himself now so you might say, “You’re an influential member of the team, Bob, you might not realise how influential you are. So it’s important that you recognise this.”

I would then close the meeting down by saying something like this, “I don’t want to labour the point but I just needed you to understand how important this is. Let’s make sure that everyone feels okay speaking out in meetings from now on.”

In order to close the meeting on a more positive note and help Bob recover from the assault on his self esteem, it’s important that you now change the subject abruptly to something more positive. So you might stand up and say, “I saw that work you did for Client X, by the way. It was excellent.” Or “That point you made yesterday in the meeting, I’ve already acted on that and it’s made a difference so thanks for that.”

This should help Bob recover from the conversation and get straight back to work, and also leave the meeting feeling okay about your relationship. He doesn’t have to worry that you’re in any way going to be negative towards him the next time he sees you.

As a leader it’s your responsibility to get the result, and this means having those conversations that we don’t enormously like having, but if you approach them in this way they shouldn’t be so unpleasant for you or your colleague.