Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

October 1, 2020
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Even in the most successful of workplaces, situations can arise that call for a much-needed conversation with employees. “At small companies, relationships can be generally more intensive (you spend a lot of time with a small number of colleagues!) and that can make it harder to create the space and time for difficult conversations and sharing tough feedback.” Says Toby Hervey, the CEO of Bravely. The idea of having these difficult conversations can feel like a daunting task. Instead of avoiding the conversations altogether, there are more efficient and beneficial ways to carry these conversations. Continue reading to learn more about how to handle these discussions. 


Face it Head-on

Difficult conversations are inevitable. When a group of people works together in close quarters for hours on end, issues are bound to come up. Face these issues head-on. Ignoring problems or trying to push a problem under the rug is a sure-fire way to make the issue ten times worse. As the leader, it is your responsibility to grab ahold of these situations and keep them from progressing any further. “One in 5 Americans are uncomfortable having such conversations with their manager, which may suggest that many people managers fail to create an environment of trust and psychological safety.” Says SHRM.Org contributor, Kathy Gurchiek

Be Prepared for Anything

If the conversation is about a difficult subject, make sure you are prepared for an unpleasant reaction. Everyone processes information differently. You should always be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Come to the meeting with all of the materials or people you may need by your side during this conversation. Having to search for certain documents or wait for someone to show up can make the situation that much more uncomfortable. 

Keep a Positive Tone

Even if a conversation can easily turn negative, do everything in your power to keep things light and positive. If you set the tone in the very beginning, it is a lot easier for everyone in the room to follow your lead. If they feel that everyone is on the same page, difficult conversations can stay positive and respectful. Also, by keeping the conversation positive, that employee can leave the meeting feeling empowered to do better, instead of angry or hurt. A leader should always lead his team with positivity and constructive criticism. Ridicule and anger are the fastest ways to burn bridges with people who, in the long run, could have been a very strong asset in the future. 


Delivery is Everything

Instead of creating a sense of doom for your employee, keep it light. Avoid strong labels on these meetings that may leave employees ready to head for the hills. When it actually is time for the meeting, stick to the facts. Keep personal opinions of yourself and the employee’s coworkers out of it. This kind of talk can destroy commaraderie amongst employees and destroy workplace morale. If the meeting is related to their work performance, use numbers and statistics to back up your concerns. It is also very important to make sure the setting for the meeting is appropriate. For smaller issues, perhaps a simple meeting in your office is sufficient. For more concerning or serious issues, you may need to move to a more private area. 

Follow Up After the Conversation

After having a difficult conversation with an employee, it is very important to follow up with them. This allows that employee an opportunity to ask questions or give their feedback about how the situation was handled. You can use this conversation to evaluate future situations if they occur again. 

At the end of the day, no one enjoys having these kinds of conversations. The idea of having to talk to someone about their behavior or their performance may fill you with anxiety. However, even the most anxious or non-confrontational of people can learn to navigate these conversations with ease by taking time to learn proper methods. Leaders don’t always get to be the good guy, you are there to run a business and you must keep that in the forefront of your mind over everything else.