7 Tips for Growing Teammates Through Critical Conversations

In my previous post about critical conversations (see Big Girl Panties), I discussed how to avoid dropping a bomb on teammates by hinting at the tone of an upcoming critical conversation. By setting the tone of the meeting before the meeting, you can give others the opportunity to mentally prepare for the conversation.

Today I’m sharing “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say, on how to conduct and follow up on a critical conversation. And take care not to confuse critical conversations with confrontations. I love coaching others, and I believe that every conversation, especially a critical one, is an excellent coaching and learning opportunity.

Now, let’s dig into the guts of pulling off a successful conversation with these seven suggestions.

1. Set the Environment – I’m not much for using small talk to begin a critical conversation. If you set the tone for the meeting, your teammate or teammates attending the meeting will probably feel a little anxious, so small talk is meaningless.

However, I do encourage lightening up the environment. That’s not meaningless small talk. For me, lightening things up usually includes humor. I typically use myself as the victim of the humor because I don’t mind laughing at myself. Laughing at myself also helps to create more of a balanced playing field, so I’m not intimidating whoever I’m conversing with. When my teammates brought the panties into the meeting, well, that set the environment up perfectly.

Now, if you’re not a funny person, don’t use this approach. It would probably be awkward. My point is to find a way to set an environment that is open and not intimidating. This shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes.

2. Get to the Point – Once you’ve set the tone and the environment, move the conversation firmly to the critical issue. I say firmly because if I’ve started the meeting with a little humor, I want to make sure I balance that out so it’s clear that it’s time to be serious about a our topic. I may say, “I’m glad we’re able to laugh together because it will help us with this tough conversation I need to have with you…”

3. Coaching Mindset – Establish in your mind that you’re having a coaching conversation; you’re not creating an argument or being the bearer of bad news. EVERY critical conversation is a great coaching opportunity. My best performing teammates are often the ones I’ve had the most critical conversations with because through those conversations, I’ve been able to coach and we’ve both grown. They know I’m “for them.”

My ultimate goal of a critical conversation is to assist in the growth of the individual. As each person in the company grows, the company grows.

4. Allow a Conversation to Take Place – Let the person respond so they feel they have the opportunity to give their viewpoint. Even if there is NO WAY the person was in the right, allow them to express their stance. Ultimately, as the leader, it’s your call how you steward the team. It’s okay to put your stake in the ground and be firm with your decisions.

5. Set Expectations – How you end your conversation is just as important as how you start it. Set the tone again. Make sure everyone leaves with expectations and clarity on how to move forward. It could be as simple as asking, “How will you handle your emotions the next time you’re in that situation?” or “How are you going to change the direction of the failing marketing plan?”

6. What Did We Learn? – This is my favorite part. Make sure you stop and reflect with the other person on what was learned. This helps everyone prevent some of the same mistakes from happening again. The follower starts to understand the leader’s stance and philosophy on things, and the leader learns how to better communicate and connect with the teammate.

7. Reinforce – When you see actions taking place that reflect a positive adjustment to the critical conversation, make sure you go out of your way to recognize it. Let them know you’ve noticed, and you like it!

Remember, you’re the leader, not the boss. And as the leader, you must use critical conversations to your advantage. Why? Because it’s an opportunity to grow those you’re responsible to lead.

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  • Kenra says:

    I just discovered your website and love the information. I am meeting with staff this afternoon (one supervises the other) that can’t seem to get along so much so that they have requested not to be scheduled together. They have agreed to sit down with me in an attempt to work through the issues. I will take many of these tools and apply them in our resolution meeting. Thanks for the useful and motivating information.

    • Linda Sasser says:

      Good for you for having the willingness to sit down with your employees and help them work through these issues head on. Best of luck! Thanks for following the blog!

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  • Mary L says:

    Great thoughts! I needed to hear this. Like Steve, I tend to avoid the conversation. Now I feel prepared to boldly go forward with a much overdue critical conversation. Your statement ” it’s an opportunity to grow those you’re responsible to lead” is especially well taken, thank you.

    • linda Sasser says:

      Thanks Mary for participating in this blog AND in crucial conversations. 🙂 Good luck with your conversation. I’m sure you will do great as you coach and grow your teammate. 🙂

  • Linda Sasser says:

    Yes, but each one might be tweaked just a bit. The level of relationship you have with this person is key.

    Start now developing great relationships with your peers so you are always able to shoot straight with them and they’ll know it’s because you truly care. If your relationship is not strong then the conversation might not go well.

    Stay humble and try to serve this person in some way. Also offer your help not just your conversation.

    A unique situation and great question. I love it when peers work through things like this. It develops an awesome culture of trust and “got your back” mentality. I applaud you Ashley for your desire to take this on instead of pushing it up a level.

  • Ashley W. says:


    Would you recommend these same steps for having this type of conversation with someone who is at a peer to peer level?

  • Linda Sasser says:

    Steve, I like the way you’re thinking! Have fun with the process.

    Cindy, great question… the results from these types of conversations vary of course depending on how crucial it is and how difficult the corrective actions are. The most important result is that the conversation has been had and everyone knows the reality of the situation. No more hiding your feelings and no more stress of wishing things were different yet no one speaks of it.

    I have better results with crucial conversations than I do with uneventful and routine weekly one on ones. Probably because we have a focused conversation, set expectations, learn how to grow forward.

  • Cindy W. says:

    What kind of results do you usually get from these critial conversations?

  • Steve says:

    I hate to have these conversations and usually procrastinate and never have them. I have usually decided the “offense” is not that bad and hope that it doesn’t happen again so I don’t have to face the issue. Based on this post, I will begin to think of this as “coaching” which helps me to think of it as a sports team where small adjustments in a player get the team to a desired outcome.