Difficult Employee Conversations: The Right Way

Every manager or business owner knows how challenging it can be to initiate a difficult conversation with a staff member over a sensitive subject. Whether it involves deteriorating work performance, a missed deadline, or a personality conflict among staff, this is the conversation that many bosses would rather put off or completely avoid. However, a recent study on workplace conflicts suggests that the consequences of avoidance can be costly. The study found that American employees spend nearly three hours a week dealing with workplace conflicts, that one-third of respondents stated that conflict had led to physical injuries, and that 10 percent felt a project had failed due to interpersonal antagonisms.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you talk through tough issues with your staff:

First, assess your own motivations and needs so that you have a clear idea of the issues you must address and the way you will approach them. Check any tendencies to use negative or blaming language, and avoid making assumptions about the other person’s intentions.

Employees are more likely to feel respected when you are direct. Be polite and straightforward in stating the purpose of the conversation when you schedule it. Choose a neutral setting such as a conference room, and give the employee plenty of time to express himself or herself.

During the discussion, focus on the employee and the problem at hand, and not on your emotional reaction to it. It can be easy to respond with frustration or anger to a problematic situation, but this usually produces negative results. Instead, focus on the other person and what you both can do to help improve the situation. This attitude offers the best possibility of achieving the goals you seek.

In addition, minimize the chance of misunderstanding by putting the conversation in context, so that your employee knows why the issue is important. Encourage the employee to express his or her concerns, and focus on making sure the meaning of your message gets through. Different people can hear the same conversation differently.

Finally, keep the interaction professional and civil, instead of fostering negativity by determining a “winner” and a “loser.” Concentrate on ways that everyone can work together to solve a problem.