Difficult Conversations with Employees – 3 Tips to Make Them Easier

Difficulty conversations in the work environment are unavoidable at times. These difficult conversations can range from inappropriate attire to offensive behavior, tardiness, personal hygiene and poor work habits.  We would much rather talk about positive reinforcement, praise and promotions; however, as a leader, you will run into this from time to time and have to deliver bad news. So, how do you do it and preserve a healthy culture?

Perception is everything – your delivery style, tone, body language and word choices have a major impact on how employees perceive your message. Above all else – always be sincere.

Here are some helpful scripts and tips that may help you choose the right words for those types of conversations:

What you really want you say vs. What you should say

What you really want to say: “You’re not meeting your goals.”

What you should say: “Thinking about the last 6 months, tell me how you feel about the projects you’ve been working on.”

Confronting an employee regarding their performance is never easy and always a sensitive conversation. Be sure you vet all your information carefully and have appropriate documentation to support your position. The employee will more than likely react emotionally, so minimizing the confrontational aspects and mitigating the emotional level can help lessen negative or defensive reactions.

Professor and author at Harvard Business School, Linda Hill, suggests, “owning your perspective throughout the discussion”.

She goes on to say: “For example, instead of saying “You’ve had a lot on your plate and you must be really stressed,” say “I know I feel really stressed when my to-do list gets long. How does it affect you?” By asking employees to own and express their viewpoints and by actively listening without interruption, you avoid adding any “fuel to the fire”. Always keep the conversation more professional and productive.

What you really want to say: “I disagree with this approach—I can’t let you or the team move forward with it.”

What you should say: “I’d like your help in understanding how we’re approaching XYZ?”

Empower employees to make decisions and own their projects without your direct involvement.  The more engaged, the happier they will be. However, you remain ultimately accountable for their decisions and the outcomes.

This can be a dilemma: How do you prevent them from feeling defeated or micromanaged when you don’t agree with their approach?

By electing to approach the conversation in a manner that evokes opportunity to explain details, as they walk you through their thought processes, you can begin to ask more in-depth questions, such as “I wonder what would happen if…” This approach could potentially help them identify points of risk as well as potential blind spots they may have overlooked. Properly executed, this type of conversation may provide them the necessary feedback that leads to course correction—without feeling entirely derailed.

We call this approach “positive confrontation”—this method not only preserves your employee’s dignity, it simultaneously protects you and your organization, while boosting your image.

What you really want to say:Upper Management has once again changed direction and all the work we’ve done on this project in the last several months was for nothing.”

What you should say: “It looks like Upper Management has some changes in the pipeline and has come up with an even better way to utilize the findings from all your hard work. Let’s talk about how our team is involved moving forward.”

This is where you become the PR guru of gurus. As frustrating as changes can be for you and your team, you will need to stand ready to perform a delicate balancing act of communicating the direction of upper management’s goals in a manner that instills respect for leadership’s decisions (even if you secretly disagree), explaining the reasons behind their decisions on keeping/nixing some aspects and how the new direction impacts the team

The important thing is to not let employees see that you are frustrated. Instead, listen to their concerns, while encouraging them to envision how the new direction could lead to better overall results. Employees need to feel the importance of their tasks; if they feel that their roles are intertwined with the goals of the organization, they will tend to feel more strongly about their involvement and remain engaged moving forward.


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