Management Matters – Tips for Tackling Hard Conversations

Have you ever heard your car make a noise that didn’t sound right? Even as the noise grows louder, you put off getting it fixed. Then your car breaks down. The realization that you could have avoided the problem earlier makes you feel a little sick.

Sadly, this the same logic is used by many leaders when it comes to conversations with employees. Initiating a simple talk can be a real roadblock. Whether it’s a performance issue or employees feuding, there comes a time when leaders must break the silence.

It’s easy for managers to brush the issue under the rug. They often don’t know how to handle the situation or emotional employees. But avoiding these conversations can make the situation even worse. The longer you wait, the more it can affect the workplace environment and productivity.

Try these tips to make your fears a thing of the past so you can focus on growing your business.

  • Get Over Your Fears - No one likes conflict. You are reluctant to engage in these types of conversations because you may not be sure how to approach their employees. No one wants the conversation to go badly, resulting in people being upset. It’s a valid concern. Some employees don’t want to be told they’re failing or making mistakes. They don’t want to be “in trouble.”

Keep in mind that employees don’t always understand how their behaviors impact those around them or the overall workplace. It’s possible they may appreciate your concern. Most “difficult” conversations are not just about mistakes.

  • Do Your Homework - The more you prepare, the better the meeting should go. It’s not a prepared meeting if you pull someone in address them based solely on your observations. You should have proof. Cold hard facts. As the boss, you are also a coach, providing your employees with what they need to succeed.

You should be able to outline expectations and explain how they are missing the mark. Performance reviews are a way to evaluate if certain goals or objectives are being met. Having fact-based evidence leaves less room for interpretation.

It’s important to document conflicts and have policies in place for certain situations. (E.g., if someone is often late to work, have a copy of the attendance policy at hand.)

  • Be Positive - It’s good to set a positive tone going into your meeting. A negative approach can mean that your employees might get defensive and argumentative. Every situation is different. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like news delivered to you? Present your anticipated conversation as a “quick chat.” Avoid language that may suggest punishment, such as a “disciplinary meeting.” And end the conversation on a positive note. Your employee should leave thinking they can do better.
  • Keep It Confidential - You want to be judicial as possible when addressing conflicts between employees. If someone is not involved in the conversation, they shouldn’t be aware of the situation. If someone comes to you “confidentially,” make sure they understand you cannot guarantee 100 percent confidentiality. Depending on what they disclose, you may have a responsibility to take action or talk to others.

Take a step back and understand there’s more than one side to every story so use complaints, first-hand accounts and the facts to figure out what actually occurred. You might have to tell an employee that you’ve received feedback regarding their offensive behavior. Leave it general to protect everyone involved. There are always at least 3 sides to these situations: the one who complained, the one who was complained about and the truth.

  • Leave Your Emotions Out of It - These kinds of conversations can easily become emotionally-charged, so make a strong effort to keep your own feelings in check. Your Conversations should always be fact-based. Avoid saying “I’m disappointed” or “I feel,” – it only adds biased emotional elements to the conversation. If emotional levels rise for either of you, pause and suggest rescheduling. You want to navigate these conversations carefully.
  • Be Consistent - Hold everyone accountable to the same performance expectations. Have the same conversation with anyone who is slipping. You don’t want to make it appear like you’re picking on a certain individual. With the right preparation, you should be able to refer back to the facts to explain why you’re having the conversation.
  • Have Boundaries – These kinds of conversation don’t usually get out of hand but if someone is rude, swears or displays aggressive behavior, end the meeting. If an employee is upset and likely to disrupt the rest of the office, think about sending them home for the day. This can allow everyone’s emotions to settle down. You can then reflect on what happened that may have led to the escalation so that you can correct it in future interactions.

Rather than put off that hard conversation, use these tips to help you act before the problem becomes more than a conversation. Don’t make things worse when you can deal with things proactively and focus on improving the workplace and meeting your workplace goals.

Joni Daniels is Principal of Daniels & Associates, a management consulting practice that specializes in developing people in the areas of leadership and management, interpersonal effectiveness and efficiency, skill- building, and organizational development interventions. With over 30 years of experience, she is a sought after resource for Fortune 500 clients, professional organizations, higher education, media outlets and business publications. Joni can be reached at

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