Difficult Conversations

Apr 12, 2023

There are not many of us who find it easy to deliver a difficult message – one we know the other person won’t want to hear. Most of us don’t like hurting other people’s feelings, and we can be worried about how the other person will react.

This means in a work context, conversations about difficulties with behaviour or performance often get put off. Even when the meetings do happen, they sometimes end up being a general chat, not setting clear expectations, or they don’t get properly followed up afterwards.

The difficulty with this is that it can lead to problems down the line. Managers contact us when they have had enough, and it has reached the point where they want to take formal action – but this is much more difficult if the individual has never been properly made aware that there is an issue!

So whilst it can be daunting, there are numerous advantages to tackling any issues that come up as soon as possible.

Firstly it is important to increase understanding on both sides. Having a conversation with an employee can allow you to explain the impact that their behaviour has and clarify what your expectations are. Although some things may seem obvious to you, it might not be to everyone. For example, perhaps the employee who is persistently late thought it was ok to arrive ten minutes late as long as they make up the extra time at the end of the day. The individual whose attitude you find difficult may have worked at an organisation where communication styles were different.

Talking to the employee also gives you the opportunity to find out if there are other issues impacting on the individual. This doesn’t mean you have to change your expectations or rules to fit around them, but it will help you to understand the reason for their behaviour, and you might be able to work together to find solutions. Taking the lateness issue as an example:

perhaps the employee is reliant on public transport and the timetable means they either have to get in 10 minutes late or 50 minutes early. Would you be happy for them to start earlier and finish earlier? Are there other employees they could car share with?

maybe they need to drop their children at school or childcare before they can come in. If this is the case could you adjust their hours slightly? Or could you reach a compromise where they start later a couple of days a week but arrange cover for the other days so they can start earlier?

what if the person has a disability that means getting out of the house in the morning is harder work? Is a later start and finish time possible? If not, is there any support you can help them access to make it easier for them?

Whatever the situation, letting the employee know your concerns as soon as possible gives them a real opportunity to change before you need to reach the point of taking formal action. It also gives you the opportunity to provide support where possible, including further training or support from a work buddy/mentor. Solving the problem early is better for both of you! And if the issue isn’t resolved, then being able to show you have tried to address it will help when you do need to take a more formal approach.

Here are some tips to help when you do go ahead with the conversation:

Be prepared – consider when and where you are going to speak to the employee – make sure you have plenty of time, and find a private space; take some time to plan what you are going to say

Be positive – even though it feels difficult you can approach the conversation in positive way. If the employee isn’t aware of the issue this could be a genuine learning opportunity for them; often they are only too aware of the problem and it would be helpful to be able to discuss it. Either way if you are genuinely looking for solutions it can lead to a positive outcome

Be genuinely interested in what the employee has to say rather than pre-judging. Ask open ended questions to help them open up and discuss the issues themselves e.g. “How is everything going at the moment?” “Is there anything you are finding difficult?” “What ideas do you have about how we can solve this?”

Be specific – refer to particular examples rather than making a general comment about behaviour or attitude. One tool you can use is “BIFF”:

Behaviour – Describe the behaviour that is causing a difficulty

Impact – Explain the impact of the behaviour

Feedback – Offer feedback for improvement and listen to feedback from them

Future – Discuss what to do moving forward. Set clear expectations.

It is helpful to make a note of the conversation and send it to the employee. This means you are both clear about what has been said and what the expectations are going forward.

Finally, make sure you follow up on the conversation – don’t let all that effort you have made go to waste! if you agree you are going to review in a month or three months then make sure this happens – keep the momentum going.

It is important as part of that follow up to offer positive reinforcement where you have seen the behaviour you want. e.g. “I’ve noticed you have been getting in on time and it means the mornings run much more smoothly.” Most people respond well to positive observations and it will encourage them to keep it up.

We know some managers are also unsure what they are “allowed” to say and worry about the legal implications if they get it wrong. Where this is the case, we can offer advice and help you plan the next steps to get things back on track.