ACAS has described the challenging or difficult conversation as being like the common cold “we all get them, they can be a real nuisance, but there seems to be no cure”. Regardless of this ACAS also recommends that these conversations should not be avoided, highlighting that “the ability to be able to talk about very sensitive and emotive issues is an integral part of effective line management and can be critical to managing performance, promoting attendance and improving team dynamics”.
We often become involved in scenarios where the relationship between the employer and employee is no longer amicable; either the parties are discussing the employee’s exit from the business or an Employment Tribunal claim has been lodged. Whilst some situations may inevitably reach this point regardless of what an employer does or does not do, in some cases the situation escalates because either a difficult conversation is avoided or delayed, or handled badly.
Philip Lloyd Williams, principal of Lloyd Williams & Associates (www.lwaa.co.uk) focuses on leadership and management and helping others have ‘difficult conversations’. In this post, Philip shares his top tips in having a difficult conversation and how to avoid making matters worse.
What are your top tips for having a difficult conversation?
- Don’t wait until the next supervision meeting or appraisal to have the conversation. Good management is about action – so book the meeting as soon as you can.
- It’s going to be difficult to have some conversations. Accept that, be aware there may be tears and tempers so keep calm and rehearse in your head (or with a trusted colleague) what you will say and how you will chose to react.
- Get the facts right: if it’s about performance be sure to have the data to hand; if it’s about behaviours be ready to give an example that should be recent.
- Don’t just judge, tell your employee what and why they are doing/not doing is unacceptable. Reporting facts is not enough – they must be contextualised.
- Always remind the employee of what is expected of them, what does this look like in practice and offer support.
- Agree to meet again in four weeks. Show that this is not a ‘one off’ conversation and that you are expecting to see some changes.
- Always, write a note of the meeting. You never know when you need it and confirm agreed actions in writing with the employee. This is essential as it reinforces what are your expectations and makes sure everyone is clear on the intended outcomes.
Can any manager have such a conversation, or should there be an agreed approach that an organisation should take?
The most important and often most influential person in our working life is our immediate line manager. A difficult conversation should ideally be between an employee and their direct line manager if it relates to a performance or conduct matter. After all, managers are paid the premium to do this piece of the job. The only exception is when you need to let a work colleague, who is a peer, know that how they conduct themselves impacts negatively on you. This works well in mature organisations where there is clarity in the values and expectations staff have in how they should work with each other.
What common mistakes are made in having a difficult conversation? How can these be avoided?
It’s easy to become defensive and to blame each other at work. This is usually what stops the difficult conversation taking place or results in it being poorly managed. So, plan it carefully, and rehearse it with a trusted colleague or a HR advisor but most of all, let the other person speak freely. Usually employees know (and even apologise) when they are not meeting the expectations of the organisation. The best approach to avoid mistakes is to be clear on the purpose of the meeting, share the data/evidence, say how it fails to meet expectation and sit quietly as you listen to the response. Then discuss what is expected in the next four weeks.Sometimes the explanations make sense of what has gone wrong for the employee (especially if they have had some personal challenges).
Can a difficult conversation really turn a situation around or is it just a means to an end to exit an employee?
It can be both. A difficult conversation needs to be an honest conversation, so it can equally be the start of an exit arrangement. This needs to be handled with due care and consensus and a note made of what was discussed.
How does a manager know if the difficult conversation is not going well and they are losing control?
Sometimes the employee will storm out in anger or there are floods of tears. These are not signs of failure and the manager should not then give up. Stop the meeting and reconvene in half an hour. Never start the process without finishing it. The manager has only lost control if they are the one in tears or in a temper. If that happens, it might be worth asking a colleague to sit in.