How to Have Difficult Conversations and Avoid Employee Disputes

difficult conversations
Christina Lattimer
I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance. I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.
Christina Lattimer


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Christina Lattimer
Christina Lattimer

The most difficult conversations are those when you have to deliver a negative message to a team member.

Whether it is a performance, behaviour or skill set problem, there is something in our human make-up which just makes us feel uncomfortable with the whole thing.

There are many reasons managers don’t tackle negative influences at work.  Sometimes, they just don’t like confrontation, have a misguided sense of politeness, or secretly hope the situation will quickly right itself.  Other times, they know there is something wrong, but just don’t trust their instincts.  And finally some doubt their own ability to be able to have that difficult conversation successfully, and fear counter accusations or even worse the dreaded employee dispute.

They may well rationalise and justify their reasons for leaving things as they are, although secretly feeling resentful and angry inside.  Often the negativity becomes a persuasive culture where substandard performance and behaviour become acceptable. After all if one or two people don’t show up firing on all cylinders, why should the rest of the team?

Unfortunately, some managers struggle about where to draw the line and avoid having that difficult conversation. Very rarely does the negative situation just go away, and the result is layer upon layer of annoyance, frustration and resentment.

In the meantime, the person displaying the poor performance, unwanted behaviour or undeveloped skillset is often blissfully unaware they are causing such unrest; or they simply have been allowed to act in that way for so long, they think it’s acceptable.

It’s not all bad news, because with a simple systematic approach and a positive mind set, managers can have those difficult conversations and achieve a win/win result, increase confidence and achieve clarity about when to step in. Here is how:

1.      Never act when you are feeling negative

Being impersonal and unattached to the problem are crucial determinates of a successful outcome. If you try to tackle a problem when you are feeling frustrated or angry, then you will likely be accusatory, or otherwise alienate the employee. There is nothing wrong with expressing your concern, but own your emotions, don’t blame someone else for them. If you feel uncomfortably emotionally charged, then wait until it passes and follow the steps below before planning how and when you are going to speak to the person.

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”.  Aristotle

2.      Gather your facts

Writing down your concerns with specific examples and more importantly quantifying the impact on the business or team is essential.  Quite often you are so busy, you know incidents or situations keep happening, but the whole big picture becomes distorted, or blurred.  Getting it down in writing, helps give you clarity and perspective.

3.      Be clear about the standards you expect and why

Refer to organisational standards, or if they aren’t in place, take this as your red flag to set some. Instinctively you know when someone’s actions are below par. The trick to testing your instincts for validity is to identify which standard, code or policy the employee’s action is breaching. If you can’t identify any, then you haven’t set out your expectations, and this is your first step.

4.      Decide what you want to achieve out of having the conversation

You are having the conversation because you need something about the person’s behaviour, performance or skill-set, to change. You need to be clear about the change you want to happen, when, and what the consequences are if the changes don’t happen.

5.      State the facts and own your concerns

Never accuse, but own your concerns. Be factual and don’t personalise the feedback you are giving.  So for example saying “This is what I am seeing, and I am concerned about the impact this behaviour is having on the team” Or “I see that only 10 customer accounts have been dealt with this week” Are much more powerful ways of asserting the problem than “You are disrupting the team by this behaviour” or “You aren’t productive enough, we need more from you”

6.      Listen intently and keep an open mind

While you have a plan as to what you want to get out of the conversation, you also need to keep an open mind and listen intently to what the employee is saying. Most people want to do a good job and there may be many reasons as to why they aren’t meeting expectations or standards.  You need to be flexible in your approach, depending on what the employee is reporting back to you.

7.      Reach common agreement about standards, but where you can’t; be assertive

One of the commonest problems managers fear is that the employee dismisses their concerns as not important.  So for example, if someone is 20 minutes late for work regularly twice a week, and their response is “Well it’s only 20 minutes it’s not a crime”, this where earlier research on impact is essential.

8.      Encourage suggestions for resolution and develop a clear plan going forward

Your way isn’t always the right way, and the employee may well have solutions which you haven’t thought of and which work better for them.  If the employee makes a suggestion which you don’t think will work, but they are adamant, let them have a go (assessing impact risk of course), simply restate the outcome you want and let them take the responsibility for achieving it.

9.      Plan an appropriate time and setting to talk to the employee

Sounds obvious, but the timing is crucial. It’s no good having a conversation when there is a faith based holiday the next day, or they are planning to go on their annual holiday. You also need to think about what they may have to do to improve and how quickly it needs to be achieved.  Much of course will also depend on the seriousness of the impact they are causing.

See also:   Handling Difficult Conversations At Work – Survey and Results Guide

“When asked to rate their own confidence in dealing with difficult conversations with any other individual at work, over two thirds of managers (68%) rated themselves as either extremely or very confident. However, when we put the same question to HR managers, only one in five (21%) felt that managers in their organisation were either extremely confident or very confident to address difficult conversations and almost half (47%) of those surveyed felt that managers were either extremely or very unconfident.  Furthermore, half of HR managers (48%) felt that difficult conversations are either frequently or often referred to HR when they could be effectively dealt with by the manager. Overall our results suggested that sensitive conversations are often being delayed, risking a detrimental effect on staff morale.”  Handling Difficult Conversations At Work –



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