Handling difficult conversations at work

Maintaining workplace happiness can sometimes mean entering into difficult conversations with employees in order to offer support or resolve conflicts. Being able to handle the situation proactively, with sensitivity and open-mindedness, is a skill that will, ultimately, ensure you retain talent, while maintaining a harmonious company culture

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Robert Half

Here are some basic tips for approaching and managing difficult conversations with your employees.

Types of difficult conversations in the workplace

The need to have a serious, one-on-one conversation with an employee is commonly caused by three major types of issue: complaints and grievances, personal concerns, and poor performance. Here are some examples of difficult conversations with employees and potential ways to resolve each.

Complaints and grievances

Complaints and grievances can be caused by members of staff repeatedly clashing, employee role/company dissatisfaction, or the wish to flag a troubling incident. They can be solved using basic conflict resolution approaches and by the simple act of listening. As manager you should seek to provide multiple options and solutions for the issue so that your employee feels trusted and empowered.

Personal concerns

Personal issues include everything from bereavement to money troubles and mental/physical health problems. It’s worth noting that employees may not always be forthcoming in regard to issues of a personal nature, so it’s important to look out for any warning signs, such as tiredness, a dip in performance or uncharacteristic behaviour.

If you’re preparing for a difficult conversation with an employee in relation to personal issues, it’s helpful to go into the meeting knowing which resources are on offer, through the organisation or government, which can provide additional support. For example, NHS services, loan repayment options or compassionate leave can all help alleviate employee stress.

Poor performance

This is defined by employees consistently missing targets, not meeting objectives set out in their coaching sessions or failing to contribute to the wellbeing of the team with a proactive, positive attitude.

Poor performance can have many contributing factors. Our report It’s time we all work happy™: The secrets of the happiest companies and employees shows that employees are the most content when they feel that they’re making a valuable contribution and are working towards their own career goals. If the issue of poor performance needs to be raised, think about outlining short-term targets and assessing ways to relieve the pressure on that individual; an example of this might be bringing a temporary resource in to offer additional support on workloads.

Managing difficult conversations: your checklist

According to advice from ACAS it’s best to run through your own difficult conversations checklist before initiating a meeting with your employee. Here are some things to consider:

Define the purpose of the conversation

This includes why you need to have the conversation and having a clear idea of what a successful resolution looks like.

Check your own emotions

Your duty as a manager is to be supportive, compassionate and encouraging. It’s important that you recognise your own feelings regarding the conversation and the individual. You should try to remain neutral, helpful and unbiased at all times. If your employees feel that you aren’t receptive, or anticipate a negative reaction from you, it will be far harder to maintain an open, honest dialogue with them in the future.

Have a basic structure in place

Go into the conversation with a clear idea of how you’re going to raise the issue. You should also be prepared to listen to your employee, then have an action plan in place to enable you to work towards an amicable, mutually agreed outcome.

Give them time to prepare

Your employee has the right to know that they will be called into a meeting; this will give them time to prepare themselves and gather any materials they might need to support their case. Dropping a difficult conversation out of the blue can only serve to make the situation far more tense.

Regardless of the kind of issues you’re helping your employees with, it’s beneficial to ensure you always remain available to listen to their concerns, or to touch base with them proactively afterwards. Each conversation will then become another step towards a happier, more productive team.

It can be tempting to avoid difficult conversations – but the longer you leave it the bigger the problem will become. Following these tips should allow you to enter into these conversations confidently and help solve the issue more quickly.

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