With the right approach and planning, that difficult conversation can be easier


When I was a union representative I heard a lot of tales from members about their managers. Their bosses, so it seemed, tended to fall into two main camps.

In one corner were those managers who took the heavy-handed approach to problem solving. Issues were resolved, or so they thought, by shouting at and bullying staff. Consequently, they generated much fear and loathing among the workforce; and the root of the problem was never really tackled.

In the other corner were those managers who preferred a hands off approach. A busy workload, a fear of upsetting people, and (as is too often the case) a lack of training, resulted in the “do nothing” approach to problem solving.

Long term, both of these approaches risked low morale and high staff turnover; and a fair amount of griping in the corridors.

But, as I’m sure you’ve already worked out, there is another way.

If you are a manager and a problem has arisen, then you ought really to deal with it sooner rather than later. So don’t put off that difficult conversation, but equally, don’t get stroppy and start laying down the law.

If you are the type of manager who engages with your staff, keeping them informed, consulting them regularly, and praising their good work, then conversations with individual team members should be second nature. Even so, there are some useful practices that will make matters easier for you when a problem arises with a member of staff.

So where do you start?

For all but the most serious of matters, you will want to try and resolve the problem informally. That said, your organisation should also have more formal procedures for dealing with problems like poor conduct or poor performance, complaints and grievances. Such procedures are tools to help ensure a fair and consistent approach to sorting out problems; and are there to be used when matters cannot be resolved informally.

So when faced with a workplace problem be aware of the relevant procedure, just in case you need to use it later. Which brings us back to that difficult conversation.

Firstly, you need to prepare. This means deciding upon the issues that need tackling; and obtaining whatever information you need in order to do this. If speaking to others is necessary, then be discreet. Check any relevant documents; and keep them to hand. But this is to be an informal conversation so don’t turn up waving around an obvious bundle of documents to prove your point.

Next, reflecting on what you know of the issue and the individual, decide upon a plan, taking account of the points you want to raise, the questions you want to ask, the things the individual might say, and most importantly, what you hope to achieve. How you frame questions or facts will be important, so concentrate on the problem, not the individual. For example, if a member of staff was frequently late; emphasise the importance of good time-keeping to your team and their work, rather than simply blame the individual.

A suitable time and private venue are important; and don’t view the issue as an inconvenience to be dealt with as quickly as possible.  When you meet up be friendly, and thank the individual for giving up their time. Think also about whether or not having some refreshments would help. Also, avoid sitting behind a desk as this smacks of formality.

Begin the discussion in a reassuring way, explaining sensitively and professionally its purpose; and that anything mentioned will remain confidential. As I’ve already said, focus on the issue, not the individual, perhaps using examples to describe the problem. Ask mostly open questions, explain your concerns; and how it could or does impact on the team or others.

Try to stay impartial, and also remain inclusive. Do this by taking overall responsibility for the teams’ actions. Indeed, always remember that everyone is valuable and has a contribution to make. At this meeting you are trying to resolve the issue so emphasise common ground and look for areas of acceptance, understanding or possible compromise. If necessary, ask the individual how they think the issue can be resolved. Ideally you should be aiming for a win-win outcome.

Now I realise your difficult conversation may not go according to plan. Emotions may run high, the individual may be uncooperative, or you may discover the issue is not what you originally thought it was. So be prepared also to adjourn to a later date, or even agree that a more formal process should be the next step. But if you are making progress, focus on the positives and offer your help and encouragement. Close the meeting by summing up any action points. However, if a solution is not found then recognise what the meeting has been able to achieve, and agree to discuss the issue again very soon, either informally as now, or formally in an appropriate procedure.

Finally, write-up the action points; and let the individual have a copy of the these and any agreed timescales for their implementation.

Much of the above is common sense, but many people, understandably, are daunted by the prospect of anything that may lead to conflict. If you regularly engage with your team, seek and give feedback, and keep them well informed, then you are less likely to encounter problems. However, a difficult conversation is still likely to take you out of your comfort zone. As such, it is, where possible, a good idea to seek advice from your organisation’s HR or employment relations adviser.

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