5 rules for navigating difficult conversations with your employees

difficult conversations at work

When it comes to having difficult conversations with employees, many managers and employers try to brush issues under the rug because they don’t know how to handle uncomfortable situations. But whether it’s a performance issue, feuding employees, or something else, a good leader will break the silence and initiate a simple talk to deal with the situation head on

Unfortunately, even initiating a simple talk can be a real roadblock for some. But avoiding these difficult, but necessary conversations can make the situation even worse. The longer you wait, the more it can negatively affect other employees and your company.

Try these tips to have more effective conversations in difficult situations, so you can focus on growing your business.  

1. Just face it

Conflict is uncomfortable. It’s easy to see why some leaders fear the outcome of the conversation so much that they will avoid it altogether. Often, this fear is that the talk won’t go well and employees will become upset.

Before you start overthinking how the interaction might go, remember it’s only a conversation. Consider that the employee might not understand how a behavior is affecting others around them or their environment overall. They might appreciate your candor and concern. Approach the situation directly, and the outcome will take care of itself. Avoiding things only makes them worse. 

2. Come prepared

As a general rule, the more you prepare for the meeting the better it will go. If you’re addressing performance issues in particular, you’ll need more than just observations. You’ll need cold hard facts. If you’re ill-prepared for the meeting, you can send the message to the employee that the conversation wasn’t that important after all. Remember that as a business leader, you’re also responsible for helping your employees to succeed. It’s important that you’re as committed to your company’s overall goals as you expect your team to be. In a difficult conversation, you should be able to outline expectations, and explain how they’re being missed. Fact-based evidence doesn’t leave room for interpretation.

It’s difficult to enforce rules and guidelines that weren’t set in the first place. It’s important to document policies and how they’re followed. This practice can also reduce liability for your management and company. 

3. Stay positive

Set a positive tone from the beginning, and maintain that attitude. If you approach the situation with a negative mindset, you’ll likely find that your employees will get defensive and argumentative.

If you’re going to tell them they’ve done something wrong, you also need to provide positive examples of what improvement looks like. Keep your approach conversational. Make sure there’s an open dialogue with the ability to share facts on both sides. Then give them the tools and resources they need to improve. Your employees should leave feeling empowered to do better, not beaten down and unmotivated. You want them committed to meeting their goals. 

4. Find the right delivery method

Your word choice and communication style always matter, but even more so in difficult situations. Avoid intimidating your employee when you’re setting up or discussing the meeting. Think about the situation from their point of view. How would you like the news delivered to you? Probably not in a surprise calendar invite from your boss titled “Urgent Disciplinary Meeting” for 4:30pm on a Friday.

Depending on the situation, your office is usually an acceptable location for difficult conversations. If it’s more of a general dialogue that can be done casually, you can talk over coffee or lunch. In some situations, pulling someone from their work area into your office to deliver a message can cause embarrassment or disrupt the work of others. However, an offsite meeting for certain messages could be inappropriate too. Every situation is different, and the answer depends on your company culture as well. Evaluate the goal of the conversation, and let that dictate the tone. Is it a formal counseling or performance improvement plan that needs a distraction-free environment? You might also have a conversation that requires a third party to be present for documenting a policy violation or behavioral issue. Or maybe it’s just a quick talk to cover an easy-to-solve complaint? Choose an appropriate environment that makes everyone as comfortable as possible, and accomplishes what it needs to. 

5. Follow up on the conversation

Once you’ve had the initial conversation, you should see the situation start to resolve or improve. That doesn’t mean it’s over, or that you can drop it. Keep up with the employee, and have a brief, informal discussion reiterating your expectations and checking in on progress. Demonstrate that you’re available for continued support even after the initial problem is solved. If the difficult conversation happened because of a complaint, you may even circle back around to the source of the complaint to see if they’ve noticed an improvement as well.

Don’t let difficult conversations define your relationships with your employees. Great leaders don’t only focus on their staff when something’s going wrong, so make sure you’re there with support when things are going right, too.  

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