How to Have Difficult Workplace Conversations That Promote Growth

Difficult conversations are a normal part of managing and supporting employees, but that doesn’t make them comfortable to navigate or easy to handle. Whether it’s negative feedback, a work performance issue, or a personal matter, confrontation simply isn’t easy, even as a supervisor.

The difficulty affects both parties, whether an employee approaches their manager about an issue or a supervisor need to address a work problem with their employee. But if problems aren’t addressed, they only get worse. In this post, we discuss when you should have these conversations and why they are a necessity for all public sector organizations. We will also cover tips for having these talks so they are more effective and meaningful.

Why Difficult Workplace Conversations are Necessary

According to Office Vibe, 24% of employees say their manager isn’t aware of their pain points. This lack of awareness makes it hard for employees to approach supervisors with their problems. But one-on-one meetings centered around difficult conversations enhance your employees' and teams’ continuous development. We all want to feel good about our work and relationships with other employees and supervisors.

But Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, “My job is not to be easy on my people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.”  And he is correct. As supervisors, it’s our job to help our employees achieve their goals and grow, which is why these conversations are necessary.

When You Should Have Difficult Work Conversations

The key to learning how to handle difficult conversations in the workplace is not to wait to have them. The longer you put them off, the worse the problem gets. If you get in the habit of providing feedback regularly, it helps you address any problems sooner.

So, what are examples of difficult conversations in the workplace?

  • Work performance
  • Discussing personal matters
  • Discipline
  • Personality conflicts
  • Skill, performance, or motivational gaps
  • Actions and behavior that don’t align with your business vision or goals.

Tips on How to Have Difficult Conversations With an Employee

Clearly, avoidance strategies don’t make the problem better. If anything, these tactics escalate the problem. Here are some tips on how to have difficult conversations with an employee.

Change Your Mindset

Changing your mindset away from these conversations being difficult can be very helpful. This mindset can make you feel nervous or stressed, but reframing it positively can make it less difficult. For example, instead of providing negative feedback on a performance review, consider it as a constructive conversation to help the employee’s personal development. The whole situation is much easier when you categorize it as a normal work conversation.

Plan Ahead

Planning helps you structure the conversation to be helpful to both parties. Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do you need to address?
  • What are the facts of the situation?
  • What would a resolution look like?

Planning also provides better results, but be sure not to try to script the conversation, as these conversations usually never go as planned. Instead, make notes with key points to ensure you don’t miss anything.

Demonstrate Compassion and Listen

Some situations can be embarrassing or even downright uncomfortable for both the manager and the employee. No matter what type of difficult conversation you need to have, try to demonstrate compassion and empathy. Try to understand how the employee feels and adopt body language and non-verbal cues that express these feelings—your employee will receive your message better.

Find a Compromise

The best course of action is often to find a solution that benefits both the employee and the business. One way to do this is to brainstorm ideas together. It allows you both to provide feedback and options, and the employee feels as though they are part of the process. Try to find a solution that works for both parties. Once you agree upon a solution (if this applies), develop a plan on how to move forward and set clear expectations.

Focus on the Facts

It can be easy to focus on what you feel and think versus the facts of the situation. Provide specific examples, evidence, documentation, or other resources that can help you explain the situation, so the employee understands it better. Constructing the conversation backward, from the outcome to the beginning, helps you gather the facts and make notes instead of talking about feelings.

Don’t Sugarcoat It

It's natural to want to sugarcoat these types of conversations. However, that tends to just dull the intended message and can make it harder for the worker to know what they need to do to improve. Instead, clearly explain the problem, what didn’t work, and why. Then clearly express what your employee can do differently and get their perspective on the issue. This solution will help you see their side and provide clear guidance on what they need to do.

Key Takeaways

Addressing any difficult conversation can be awkward and stressful for managers and employees. But it’s important to address the issue as soon as possible, so it doesn’t get worse. Whether you need to address poor performance, discuss personal matters, personality conflicts, or something else, these tips can help you navigate these difficult discussions. Structure these conversations so they are more meaningful and effective for all parties involved.

CPS HR can help you learn how to approach these conversations and improve these skills with strategies for being an exceptional leader and mastering the art of crucial conversations.

Difficult work conversations with an employee can be stressful and awkward. Learn how you can make them meaningful and productive.
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Regina W. Romeo

Ms. Romeo has more than 20 years of experience in public sector human resources as an analyst, manager and director. In her role as Chief Human Resources Officer, she is responsible for managing the day-to-day HR operations and organizational development for CPS while also consulting and managing special projects for clients. Regina has worked for both large and small public sector agencies and brings a unique perspective and real-world experience to her role.

About CPS HR Consulting

CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country.  Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients.  We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.