by Sarah K. White

4 tips for tough conversations with your employees

Sep 21, 2016
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Chances are if you haven't already had a difficult conversation at work, you will at some point. But these conversations don't have to be stressful. With a little effort, they can be productive and carry long-term benefits.

busy group of business people walking in silhouette
Credit: Thinkstock

No one likes when difficult situations at work, but when these issues do arise, it’s important that your focus remains on establishing a productive conversation where everyone feels heard.

“When difficult conversations do arise — such as discussions about low performance, inconsistent results, frustrated clients — a leader can confidently assess the current situation against previously defined expectations and a focus on identifying and closing the gap,” says Anthony Abbatiello, global lead, Deloitte Leadership business.

When you approach tough conversations with professionalism and leadership, they can ultimately help guide the employee in their career by helping them figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are. However, it can still be just as difficult to deliver bad news at work as it is to receive it, but there are a few steps you can take to help make those tough moments at work easier on everyone.

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Set expectations

It stands to reason that you can’t expect people to perform to your expectations if you’ve never taken the time to articulate your expectations. Abbatiello says you should ensure that every employee understands early on what is expected of them in terms of performance and behavior. You can include it in the training, through clear and concise job descriptions, information on office culture and taking time to answer all of their questions.

“Tough conversations are often tough or feel tough if a leader has not established clear expectations with his or her employees. As a leader, it is paramount to clearly define your expectations of your team and team members. This is a conversation that you should be having on day 1, or as close to day 1 as possible,” Abbatiello says.

Vip Sandhir, CEO and founder of HighGround, says that managers need to start out every tough conversation with clear expectations as well, whether it’s about a change in behavior, a mistake or productivity issues. From there, you can build a conversation focused on the key points without getting off track, keeping the discussion professional, productive and on-point. Basically, you want to ensure that your employees understand it’s not a personal attack, but that it’s about a specific issue and expectations around that problem.

Foster relationships

If you take time to get to know your employees, tough conversations will naturally become less awkward or difficult. “The difficult conversation should not be the first time you’re engaging in a face-to-face conversation with your direct report or mentee,” says Abbatiello.

The best way to get to know your employees is to just have casual conversations with them — in your weekly meetings, ask them how their weekend was or if they have any vacations coming up. You don’t have to get over-personal, but establishing a friendly rapport will go a long way in making any difficult conversations easier. The more comfortable you are with your employees, and vice versa, the easier it will be to deliver difficult news with empathy and understanding.

“Be real, be genuine, demonstrate good will and emotional intelligence by sharing something about yourself in the context of the project or initiative you’re working on,” says Abbatiello.

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Offer coaching and training

Management skills won’t come naturally to everyone – and if you hire the right people for management roles, they’ll be better equipped to learn how to handle this area of managing workers.

“Not all managers inherently have the coaching skills necessary to make difficult conversations productive. Likewise, employees automatically feel powerless and defensive before the meeting has even begun,” says Sandhir.

When you hire managers or promote workers to management positions, you want to make sure you get them the right coaching and training. Especially if it’s a first time manager, they’ll have to deal with situations they have never been in before, and you want to make sure they’re as prepared as possible.

In fact, Abbatiello says that, when considering employees for management, businesses should start focusing on an employee’s management potential based off their emotional intelligence rather than their capabilities.

“At Deloitte, we define ‘what you can do’ as a capability and differentiate this with ‘how fast you can go’, which we call potential. An individual with a high degree of leadership potential can quickly ramp up to assume roles that require greater levels and degrees of complexity,” says Abbatiello.

It can be easy to get stuck in a trap where you keep promoting people based off performance and merit — and that’s great for most roles, but management requires a certain level of self-awareness and personality.

Involve your employees

Employees are at their best when they’re engaged, and a big part of employee engagement is keeping them involved in important conversations. The same goes for when you’re having a tough conversation — and a good way to help your workers feel engaged, even in tough moments is by reframing the discussion. Instead of approaching the conversation as a lecture, or admonishment, focus it as a “key development opportunity,” says Abbatiello.

Give your employees acknowledgements in the areas they excel, and then focus on where they could improve, emphasizing how it will benefit their career in the long run. Seeing how certain skills could help them move up, or even get a raise, will help them feel more motivated and less attacked.

Sandhir says that if you can foster an environment where “conversations and feedback are continuous,” your employees will feel more engaged even in tough moments. Ensure you have all the resources in place so that employees feel their voices are heard and that they can be honest with management in a professional context. “Give them the tools to initiate continuous conversations with their managers. When managers are trained how to be better coaches and employees direct their own development, difficult conversations should be few and far between,” he says.

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