“Bud Did It”– Life of a Leader and Essential Conversations

Julie Jones
“Bud did it!” Our daughter was about three years old when visiting family in California. At one point, Stephanie did something, and when asked about it, she proclaimed,” Bud did it.” Bud being the dog who lived outside. Throughout the entire week, “Bud” was the common culprit. 

Bud is easy to blame—he is the mysterious person or dog who makes appearances in performance conversations to deflect ownership of actions. As a leader early in my career, the thought of addressing employee performance problems scared me. How could I have performance conversations with employees who had done their jobs for more than twenty years when I had been there for less than one year? I did not feel I had the experience or confidence to direct these conversations. Instead, I found myself being led by the employees in these conversations to:

  • “It was someone else’s fault.”
  • “Joe does the same thing, and you don’t have a problem with it.”
  • “I’m not sure you (meaning me) understand how it is really done here.”

Note the employees deflected their responsibility for the action or issue. Too often, I conceded to their position since I was uncomfortable with the silence, delivering bad news, and/or handling the anger of people who were upset with me for addressing the issue. I knew I needed to change my approach.

What it takes to address “Bud” in conversations

First, I had to acknowledge my role as a leader included having essential conversations with employees to address their accountability, performance, and ownership of actions. Having essential conversations is more specific and tied to individual employees more than saying I do performance evaluations annually.

Then, like most new leaders, I had a defining moment that shoved me in the right direction. I remember finding my voice with one employee who threw everyone, including the kitchen sink, under the bus instead of owning her actions. That day, I found the courage to coach and have a corrective conversation with this employee. At that time, I also recognized I was not fair to the other employees by giving someone the license to speak poorly of their coworkers. As a leader, I had to own the direction of the conversation.

Crucial Conversations
, a book was written by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, presents content, a format, and practice exercises to grow your essential conversation skills. I like to switch the word essential for their word, crucial. Essential describes the conversation as being absolutely necessary and part of my required role as a leader. I shifted my mindset.

As I thought more about my performance, I realized that I was good at having conversations with employees. However, I did avoid entering the challenging zone. In retrospect, employees probably had to figure out how they were performing since I did not consistently let them know. I had to find my voice, develop confidence, and grow my essential conversation skills through practice, observation, and feedback to get better. I also learned that building trust and positive relationships is key to success. 

What I learned in more than 30 years of essential conversations:
  • The fear of having the conversation was usually worse than having the essential conversation.
  • Essential conversations are an extension of trust and positive relationships that I build each day.

Some tips I have learned:
  • Recognize that there are two sides to every story. Allow employees to be heard and share their solutions or ideas.
  • Employees want to be part of the process.
  • In the conversation, show respect. Treat the person as you would want to be treated in a similar circumstance or how you would want your family member treated.
  • Separate the person from the behavior. Too often, the person and the behavior are blended, which causes bias.
  • Make conversation with employees a part of an everyday routine. Learn their stories and what is important to them. Share what they do well, show appreciation for their work. Communicating only problems or things to fix is not a long-term strategy for growing performance.
  • When positive relationships exist, the tone of the conversation and acceptance of the feedback improves in essential conversations.

Direct the path of the conversation and its outcomes.
  • Assume positive intent by the employee and create a safe space for the conversation.
  • Be curious and ask questions. Do not assume you know the answer or their motivation. Ask what questions instead of why. What happened is better than why did you that? Think through questions to ask in advance to be better prepared.
  • Direct the conversation and its path consistently back to the employee and the issue at hand. Hold the reins, and do not let the employee confuse the content or meaning by blaming others or yourself. I found this statement worked most times – “I want to make sure I understand your actions or fill in the blank. Then I would clarify their actions, performance, and impact through added questions and statements like “Tell me more about ...”. 
  • Likewise, do not introduce Bud in conversations yourself. Be accountable and own the information you share. Do not blame other managers or people as the reason for meeting or follow up.
  • Be present in the conversation. Be prepared to be wrong in your assessment of the situation.
  • Follow your organization’s guidelines for employee counseling and documentation. Seek feedback from other seasoned leaders or human resources partners when faced with challenging situations. 

  • Ensure you have clearly described employee expectations, required changes in behaviors, and next steps so that employee understands.
  • Do what you say you were going to do for the next steps—consistency and follow-through matters. 
  • Offer employees the opportunity and support required to correct their behavior and/or improve performance. When you are fair, consistent, and provide the necessary support, disciplinary action results from the employee’s behavior, performance, or actions.

After more than thirty years and what seems like thousands of essential conversations, I became more confident, a better listener, showed more courage, could redirect “Bud” moments, and became more empathetic to what the employee feels. Navigating essential conversations is always a work in progress. Feelings and emotions often make an appearance and can affect the conversation even for the most seasoned leaders. I found I learned something about the employee or myself from every essential conversation. 

Ask yourself these questions:
  1. Do I need to have an essential conversation I have been putting off? What is holding me back? What could be the “shove” I need to hold a productive essential conversation?
  2. Think back to a recent essential conversation. What did I do well? What could I have done differently? How can I apply this learning to a future essential conversation?
  3. How well did I listen when an employee shared their concerns with me? Did I listen for the whole story and not just hear what I wanted to hear?

Action and Reflection
Commit time this week to: 
  1. During your daily employee rounds, what can you learn about employees, their development needs, or confidence boosters? What opportunities can you provide to support them better?
  2. Practice low-stakes conversations with others at home with your family, friends, or peers at work. These build confidence for essential conversations.