Difficult Conversations

October 3, 2021

Oh boy!  My mother said there would be days like this but… never in a million years did I think I’d have to have “this conversation.” Nothing in my school days ever prepared me to deal with something like this.  All leaders have experienced thoughts and feelings of anxiety when difficult situations arise.  We’ve   all dealt with unthinkable business challenges. One of the hardest things we must do is have those difficult conversations with either employees;  or with one of our peers in the workplace.

The dreaded conversation may deal with job performance issues, or outright inappropriate behaviors, or a multitude of other uncomfortable topics.  None are pleasant discussions, but they must be  addressed by every good leader. Procrastination is not your friend when it comes to dealing with workplace problems. The longer you let the problem go, the worse it usually gets.  As a leader you need to distinguish  between which matters you need to deal with, and which ones are better left to the HR pros. 

Don’t delay or put off the discussion.  First know the facts and be sure of the details.  Be objective.  Turn off your “emotional” response to the situation and try to be empathetic to the person(s) involved.  Attempt to understand why or how the behavior came about.  Check with your HR department to make sure they are aware of what is going on. Get direction from them before you proceed –there may be defined guidelines to follow.  They may require that HR become directly involved. They may require that you have a witness present (this is usually strongly recommended).  “Rehearse” what you are planning to say. And anticipate how the person might respond. 

Once you have your “ducks in a row,” make sure you have a private place for the meeting and plan enough time to ensure your discussion will be uninterrupted.  Establish a reasonable time limit for the meeting and don’t let it drag on longer than it should. Be certain of the words you plan to use to bring the discussion to a conclusion. Don’t attempt to soften the issue, by “sandwiching” the unpleasant issue between praise and/or positive comments.  Don’t stray from the facts.  Cite specifics of the troublesome  behavior or performance issue. If the behavior is not reflective of an ongoing pattern of bad performance or unacceptable behaviors, you may acknowledge this as being one isolated event in their work history. Explain the impact it’s had on productivity, other employees, customers, vendors, etc. 

Allow the individual to explain what happened but maintain control of the discussion.  Don’t let the conversation get turned around.  Use “I” statements. “Avoid  directing accusatory “you” statements (such as “you always,  you often, you don’t”, etc.) at the “offending” party.  Explain the person’s need to change their behavior.  Ask how they might go about correcting the issue.  Help guide the person to your desired result.  Make sure they clearly understand the request/requirement you are asking/requiring  of them.  Encourage them, if possible, but don’t give false hope.  Depending on the specifics of the issue at hand, you may ask the employee what they need from you to help them achieve the desired behaviors/performance levels.  It would be wise to document the discussion for many reasons. 

This post is simply a tool to help you with these challenging conversations.  Obviously, the information provided must be placed in context of the exact situation you are dealing with.  The idea here is simply to remind you of how important these unpleasant discussions are.  As leaders we have an obligation to the team member we are speaking with, but just as importantly to the entire team.  Left unchecked  these performance problems or behaviors only become more detrimental to everyone and more difficult to deal with. 

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