No-one likes having difficult work conversations – but as a manager, it’s inevitable that at some point an issue will arise that has to be addressed.

It may be that an employee’s performance has been consistently under par, a project has gone horribly wrong or a crucial meeting has been mishandled. Regardless, there will inevitably be a time when an error or lapse in judgement is simply too hard to ignore.

Of course, it’s tempting to sweep poor performances under the carpet in the hope it can resolve itself. After all, having difficult conversations at work aren’t something people enjoy, and many will look to avoid them at all costs. For example, one poll revealed that more than 80% of workers are running in fear from at least one scary conversation at work— a conversation they know they need to have but are dreading.

staff employee difficult conversation

Being a manager, having to have a tough conversation with employees can be an unavoidable part of the job. Instead of trying to get out of them, nip any issues in the bud and use these 8 tips to help you tackle tough workplace conversations with confidence…

1. Prepare yourself

It’s never a good idea to launch into a difficult conversation with an employee unprepared. Remember, that a conversation – no matter how difficult the subject matter – should be a dialogue, not a monologue.

Take some time beforehand to practice what you’re going to say as this can ensure you cover everything that needs to be discussed. Think carefully beforehand about the key points you want to make, and what actions or solutions you are going to propose.

Also, think about your role in the issue being discussed. For example, if you’re having to give tough feedback to an employee regarding their work performances, is there anything you could have done differently as a manager to better support them? Taking a moment to consider the other person’s point of view can offer both empathy and a new perspective on the problem.

2. Ensure privacy

If you’re working in a shared workspace, identify a place where you can have the conversation in private. Embarrassing an employee by delivering difficult or negative feedback in front of colleagues isn’t fair or appropriate and certainly won’t make for a productive meeting, either.

If you’re having a conversation with a remote-working member of staff, think about the technology you’ll be using and how to make the experience as seamless as possible. For instance, if you’re using a programme such as Zoom or MS Teams, make sure your camera and microphone are both working, and your internet connection is strong and stable. In addition, ensure that you have your camera on during your conversation and you are free from any external distractions.

3. Set the stage and be specific

Make sure you start the conversation in a pleasant and non-confrontational manner: but don’t beat around the bush. After initial pleasantries have been exchanged, make sure you get to the point quickly, air your concerns and give the chance for the employee to get their own points across.

As part of that, it can be helpful to give specific examples of problems, the impact it’s having and specific actions that the person can take to resolve the problem. This is especially true if the conversation is around poor or sub-standard work performances – an employee will have a better chance of turning things around if they know exactly what the issue is, and how they can go about solving it.

4. Be an active listener

Listen carefully to what is being said – as well as to what is not being said. As mentioned earlier, this is a conversation and not a one-way diatribe. Try to empathise with your employee’s viewpoints and acknowledge how they feel. Show an interest in what they’re telling you, even if your employee presents you with some uncomfortable truths.

Giving the employee a chance to put their perspective on things could reveal underlying issues you’re not aware of that are affecting their behaviour, or offer a genuine explanation behind below-par performance (a lack of specific training or an ongoing personal matter, for example).

5. Mind your body language

Make sure your body language is positive – whether the conversation is in person or virtual. Avoid crossing your arms, maintain eye contact and keep your tone of voice calm. Be aware of the employee’s body language, too. It will give you an idea of how well the conversation is going and whether they are being receptive to your message.

Watch for signs like changes in attitude, fidgeting, or frequent looking down or away from the screen (if conducting the conversation virtually) – these could be signs that your employee is becoming uncomfortable or anxious. Listen for audible cues such as shifts to one-word answers or changes in the tone of their voice. If it feels like things are getting heated, there’s no harm in suggesting a brief pause to regain composure before resuming your conversation.

6. Keep emotions in check

Managing your emotions is perhaps one of the toughest parts of conducting a difficult workplace conversation. Try not to raise your voice or lose your temper, even if the other person becomes confrontational.

It doesn’t help anyone if an already difficult work conversation escalates into an argument. So, the calmer and more focused you are, the better the outcome is likely to be.

7. Make positive suggestions

Work with the employee to set specific goals for improvements. You could even try brainstorming potential solutions with them. After all, you may think you have the right solution to fix a problem, but you may come to an even better answer by talking through ideas and suggestions with them.

People are much more likely to buy in to any necessary changes if they feel they’re part of them. Make sure people are clear about what is expected and know how to access any support they may need to help them achieve their goals.

8. Set a timescale for review

Lastly, set a time frame to review progress so that everyone knows what they are working towards. Ideally, using a tool such as performance management software would help with this process. Depending on the circumstances, you might want to schedule a few informal check-ins, leading up to a more formal review.

Discover how Cezanne HR is helping revolutionise HR for growing European businesses

“The system has really had a positive effect on our appraisal process… It’s made the whole appraisal cycle more intuitive and straightforward. It automates the process of sending and tracking appraisal forms, it’s all done in the one place, and everyone can see everything involved in their own appraisal. It’s definitely solved an issue there!”

– Charlotte Haynes, Operations Administrator for AgDevCo

Read the full case study here

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Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.

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