Three tips for navigating difficult conversations in the office

If you were to take a guess at the employee issue that causes owners and managers the most anxiety, what would it be? Performance, productivity, managing personalities? It’s actually none of these.

The employee issue that causes managers the most amount of stress is how to have that “chat” or difficult conversation with an employee. Now that “chat” or difficult conversation could be for any number of reasons, including:

  • An employee isn’t meeting expectations in terms of productivity or quality of work.
  • An employee isn’t going to get the pay rise or promotion they wanted.
  • An employee’s behaviour is inappropriate and it’s having a negative effect on the team.
  • Personal presentation, for instance how an employee dresses or communicates with others.
  • Talking to an employee about personal hygiene.
  • An employee keeps missing deadlines and lacks accountability.

Avoiding these difficult conversations is understandable and very common. But doing so can have far-reaching effects, for instance:

  • Decreasing employee engagement, eroding productivity and culture. Employees know when their peers aren’t performing and begin to wonder, “Why should I work hard when Colin isn’t and no one seems to care?”
  • Poor execution of your business strategy. Employees aren’t aware of what is expected of them and poor performance is allowed to continue.
  • Lost time. The longer you wait to address issues, the more complicated and distracting the situation is for other employees and the longer it will take to address.
  • The cost of valuable time and resources due to increased turnover of employees.
  • Increased stress for both management and employees.
  • Legal implications. If the first conversation you have about an employee’s performance is at the time of termination, you could be exposing yourself and the business to a Fair Work claim or lawsuit.

So don’t put these “chats” off. Here are three practical ways to navigate a difficult conversation in the office.

1. Prepare

When we are talking about conflict, emotions often run high and going into the conversation unprepared will set you up for an unproductive and contentious debate. Taking the time to prepare mentally will help you to remain calm, increase the chances that the conversation will go smoothly and improve the ultimate solution.

2. Ask powerful questions

By asking questions early on the conversation you give the other person a voice, avoid blunt and unhelpful statements, for example, “I hate working on this team”, and open up a space for meaningful discussion. However, refrain from asking irrelevant questions as these can do more harm than good, as well as statements phrased in the form of a question, for example, “What were you thinking?”

3. Acknowledge and then motivate for change

It’s important to understand and acknowledge the behaviour of others, even when it is wrong, if you want to get them to first discuss it and then change. If you acknowledge that their behaviour is ‘normal’ or happens to other people, it makes finding a solution easier. Then to create long lasting change in other people, you need to give them the motivation to do so. For instance, give them a benefit for changing their behaviour and express confidence in them.

Next time you face a difficult conversation with an employee don’t try to avoid it or attempt to “wing” it. Following these steps won’t make these “chats” any more enjoyable or less awkward, but you will be more likely to get a positive result following your “chat”.

Dayna Edwards, Director, PeopleStart

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