Tackling Difficult Workplace Conversations – How is Your Message Being Perceived?

by Margaret Wood   Posted 4/11/2017

As a manager, one of the most intimidating tasks that you’ll face,  is having tough conversations with your employees. We have all, at one time or another, been guilty of ignoring problems, allowing them to continue, hoping they’ll  fix themselves–but they don’t. It’s only a matter of time before something blows up.

As managers, we face this challenge many times throughout our careers. After all the seminars, webinars, and training,  you instinctively think that with the right verbiage and game plan you’ll be able to address minor problems head-on before they escalate out of control. But remember the old adage: it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts.

Regardless of the content of your message, if you speak with others in a respectful and thoughtful tone, you allow them to assume responsibility for their actions or, in the case of termination, get on with their lives.

People are sometimes difficult to predict.  By treating people with dignity and respect at all times, even through the discipline and termination processes, you will always come out ahead-personally and professionally.

People tend to respond in kind. By demonstrating respect and compassion, even when dealing with confrontational workplace situations, you will likely get the same in return. Be transparent and above all, honest.

When dealing with others, your greatest ally is guilt, not anger. Anger is an external response: When people are angry, they look outward to voice their frustration. Trying to force them to do something by making them angry, by challenging them or embarrassing them, will only cause them to resist the change .

Alternately, guilt is internal:  people look inward when made to feel guilty.  there is a tendency to assume responsibility for the issues at hand.  By allowing people to assume responsibility for their actions,  you’ll  get them to want to change things for themselves.

Whatever you want for yourself, give to another. Too often people demand open communication,  respect, and other forms of acceptance, not realizing that they don’t offer those  very things to others. Nobody needs to deal with the angst or pressure of “walking on eggshells” around people who don’t get along with others.

When preparing to have one of these difficult conversations, the paradigm that has developed focuses on two key areas:

(1) Documenting your affirmative efforts at proactively working towards change with  employees and ‘‘meeting them halfway’’ in terms of fixing the problem at hand, and

(2) Shifting the responsibility for improvement to the employee (and away from the company); holding them fully accountable for their actions.

As a result, if termination was the ultimate outcome, your documentation would show that those employees actually self-terminated, in spite of your bone fide efforts to help them.

You should always be prepared to defend a termination or other adverse  action; don’t manage by fear of a lawsuit, and don’t be afraid of being sued. By showing that you are a  reasonable  and  responsible  employer and that the employee was given full workplace due process, the record will reflect that you listened to the employee’s side,  properly investigated the situation , and reached a well-founded, timely conclusion prior to taking  action.

“Grading inflation” during performance reviews is one of the most problematic areas in corporate America. The majority of supervisors don’t keep records throughout the year of their employees’ performance and some don’t meet with their staff members on a regular basis. Additionally, they want to avoid upsetting the employee. Afterall, they will have to deal with them for the entire upcoming year.

Instead of providing a true score that reflects that the individual doesn’t meet company expectations,  the grade is inflated to show that they are performing at an acceptable level, thereby perpetuating the problem.

Suddenly, the company decides it needs to lay off a percentage of its workforce. The manager, of course, wants to lay off the marginal performers, the “skaters”.

However, according to that employee’s records over the past few years, this individual has consistently met expectations. The supervisor is shocked to find that they can’t simply lay off this individual. Now that individual is the longest tenured, the oldest, or otherwise the most protected person.

The end result? You end up laying off someone less tenured, maybe even your star performer. And so now begins the progressive discipline process with the wayward employee from scratch. That’s a tough lesson to handle.

Dealing with over-inflated egos is another problematic area. These individuals typically feel they are performing at peak–it is your job to help them face reality.  When having to discuss this with them,  use phrases such as ‘‘I feel,’’ ‘‘I’ve felt,’’ and ‘‘I’ve found’’–these   are very soft accusations that force the employee to look inward –they are both extremely honest and open. After all, if the employee isn’t made aware of these issues, they can’t necessarily be held liable for fixing them

As important as it is to convey the message using the right words and phraseologies, it’s equally important that your conversations remain on  solid,  legally  defensible ground. When in doubt or for affirmation, contact your legal department to ensure you are well within the boundaries.


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