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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Five steps to success in difficult conversations


Difficult conversations crop up often, particularly as organisations grow. Some managers shy away from difficult conversations, preferring to use email. Others, apprehensive about making the issue worse, fail to be direct and become frustrated when employees do not take appropriate action. This creates ill-feeling on both sides and can lead to disengagement and productivity losses. But difficult conversations don’t have to be difficult when managers take steps to make the process as stress-free and progressive as possible.

Hint before you tackle

You can avoid difficult conversations by hinting about a potential issue and seeing if the employee picks up on your subtleties. If they do, great, if they don’t then you’re no worse off. Hinting involves talking round the topic and turning personal criticism into general comment. For example, if an employee consistently takes a long lunch, you may want to stress the importance of everyone working their allocated hours to the success of the business. This is not being passive-aggressive when used as part of a measured approach – it’s a chance for the employee to ‘save face.’

Meet on neutral territory

Power plays are inherent in manager/employee conversations and it’s important that managers mitigate this so that the conversation focuses on the issue rather than the emotions involved. Meeting on neutral territory is important – a meeting room, for example, is much better than the manager’s office or a public place where the conversation may be overheard. The environment should also be neutral. Both should sit on the same level, in the same type of chair. Managers should also maintain neutral body language and a relaxed posture to avoid appearing threatening.

Talk like an adult with an adult

In The Games People Play, Eric Berne outlines transactional analysis as a method of interpreting social interactions. Each of us has distinct ego states – Parent, Adult and Child – which direct social interaction. Dysfunctional outcomes, he says, come from interactions where there’s a mismatch between people in different ego states – a boss talking as a Parent to a employee, who feels like a Child. Healthy outcomes come when there’s alignment between ego states. In adult relationships, Adult – Adult interactions achieve the most progressive outcomes and allow both participants to talk in an open and transparent way. Managers should make sure they treat employees with respect during difficult conversations.

Contextualise, contextualise, contextualise

Insubordination, misconduct or minor indiscretions never occur in a vacuum. Skilled managers should get to the bottom of why the employee is acting the way they are and work with the employee to make positive change. Employees are naturally sensitive about being criticised, particularly if there are ‘good’ reasons for their behaviour, but they don’t want to provide reasons because they think managers will view them as excuses. But managers should lead in looking for reasons, comparing and contrasting against the employee’s positive behaviour, inviting insight into the employee’s personal life and generally looking for solutions rather than focusing on the problem.

Assume compliance and draw a line

Following a first-time difficult conversation, managers should assume compliance from employees and not explain, for example, what will happen should the issue continue. This assumes non-compliance and shows a lack of faith in the employee. Employees become naturally defensive and upset when criticised, particularly when it’s about a negative aspect of behaviour, but verbally and clearly drawing a line underneath the issue (“We’ll say no more about it.”) can help them move on from the experience and make the necessary changes. If they feel permanently broken because of the criticism, and expect to be treated/perceived differently in future, there’s less incentive to improve.

Author Profile Picture
Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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