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How to prepare for and have difficult conversations with employees

Employers occasionally need to have difficult conversations with employees, perhaps about performance or personal issues. But managers can get so anxious about tackling the issue that they either put it off for too long or rush to 'get it over with'. This can leave the employee confused and the problems unresolved. To increase your chances of a good outcome, it pays to prepare. Expert Sarah Lewis shares her tips

1. Be clear about your objectives

Why are you having this conversation, and what do you hope to achieve? For example, do you want an apology, agreement on a particular issue, a change in behaviour, some sort of restorative action or a resubmission of work. Be clear about what the successful outcome is, and be sure to look out for it.

2. Look for signs of agreement

Being anxious can make us so focused on what we want to say that we fail to hear others conceding our point. Look for signs that you've made your point and be prepared to move on, even if you haven't said everything you intended. Otherwise you risk producing a new source of conflict, because the employee feels unfairly berated after they've made a concession.

3. Understand your right to initiate the conversation

It helps reduce our anxiety if we understand how the aim of a difficult conversation aligns with our values. For instance, you may have to give honest feedback to help someone understand why they didn't get a promotion or pay rise. The clearer you are about why your feedback is helpful, the easier it will be to say what needs to be said. Fobbing someone off is easier, but it will be less helpful to both parties in the long run.

4. Consider the timing

There are pros and cons to giving advance notice of a difficult meeting. There may be a drop in productivity if the employee is left worrying what the conversation will be about. There is also the danger that they could encourage you to 'just get it over and done with'. On the other hand, springing a serious conversation on an employee unexpectedly can make them feel ambushed. It's a judgement call, and much depends on the situation and circumstances.

5. Look for the positives

Sometimes, seemingly bad behaviour could be an honest mistake or a misguided attempt to do good. Many mistakes start out as good ideas or good intentions. If you can frame a criticism in this way, it makes it more likely the employee can 'own' the problem and be open to and positive about making changes.

6. Listen

Once you have outlined what you want to discuss, give the employee the chance to give their views. They might already know that something went wrong or that there is a problem (it might even be weighing on their mind). Of course, some employees will choose to get their defence in first, but at least you'll know the lie of the land before you say your piece - and you may not need to say much at all as a consequence.

7. Offer reassurance

There is an art to building and maintaining relationships when conveying difficult information/feedback. Use openers such as "This conversation may be difficult, but it will help us both", or "I hope we come out of this conversation with a shared understanding of what happened and how we can make things better".

8. Be honest about the effect on you

The more honest you are about your motivation, the more likely you will act and speak with integrity. Authenticity produces better responses in others. Say something like "I felt really embarrassed when... and I like to feel proud of my team". This isn't about trying to give the employee a 'guilt trip', it's about being honest about your investment in this, as well as how you're hoping to help the employee.

9. Use descriptive, not evaluative, language

Stick to an account that articulates what happened and the consequences, one that could be verified by others. For example, don't describe someone's behaviour as 'aggressive', instead be descriptive. For example: "You were speaking in a louder than usual voice and your face was going red. X didn't speak for the rest of the meeting and he told me later that he felt intimidated by you". Here you can add your concern: "If he feels that way, we will lose his input. Let's find a way so you both can make your points."

10. Look for solutions - not to apportion blame

The aim of the discussion, if possible, is to create agreement about the situation without getting lost in counter-arguments and blame. It doesn't have to be a complete consensus - just enough to allow the conversation to move forward constructively, in a way that is acceptable to you both.

By considering these points before embarking on a difficult conversation, you can reduce your own anxiety and help to generate a positive and productive outcome for you and your employee.

Written by Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol. Sarah is an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society and a principal member of the Association of Business Psychologists. She is a regular conference presenter and author of such works as Positive Psychology at Work (Wiley) and Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management (Kogan Page).

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