2024 - Difficult Conversations At Work

Difficult conversations at work are inevitable.

Most people prefer to avoid conflict. In the workplace, this type of avoidance can look like; failing to address someone’s inappropriate behaviour; refusing to discuss poor performance; or not drawing necessary boundaries with colleagues, for example.

The longer a difficult conversation is avoided, the worse the matter often becomes.  Procrastination of this kind can cause a ripple effect throughout a business, affecting far more than an individual Employee and the Manager charged with orchestrating such discussions.

At its worst, a failure to have difficult conversations can even result in terminations, or Employees choosing to leave the business, through frustration, lack of faith in management, or feeling undervalued.

Types of Difficult Conversations

As an Employee, difficult conversations could include;

  • Admitting to making a mistake;
  • Reporting colleagues’ poor performance or behaviour;
  • Violated boundaries by a colleague;
  • Asking for a raise; and
  • Confronting a difficult boss.

From an Employer point of view, difficult conversations could be:

  • Addressing negative feedback;
  • Mediating disputes and resolving conflicts amongst Employees;
  • Investigating reports of inappropriate behaviour;
  • Addressing performance issues; and
  • Discussing redundancies and terminations.

Looking at a couple of examples…

If a Manager procrastinates in responding to, or addressing a report of inappropriate behaviour by an Employee (for example, sexual harassment), it can result in continuance of the behaviour, resentment from the colleague(s) who made the report, and the business facing legal action for ignoring complaints and thereby allowing Employees to remain at risk.

If addressing an Employee’s poor performance is delayed, it can result in a continuance of poor-quality work, whether or not the Employee is aware of their shortcomings.

Additionally, if there is an Employee who is performing poorly due to a lack of knowledge or skill, having a conversation about the issue can reveal this detail, and help both parties find resolutions such as training and development, potentially resolving the matter. Avoiding the conversation though, could result in a termination. Furthermore, if the termination is due to an Employee’s perceived failings, which are in fact due to management’s failure to train them in the first place, it could even open the business up to an Employment Tribunal.

6 Tips for Having Difficult Conversations

  1. Invite Regular Conversation

We don’t know what we don’t know. Having difficult conversations can shed light on issues that not everyone is aware of. A Manager may not be able to appreciate some of the challenges faced by an Employee, and likewise, an Employee may not be able to appreciate some of the decisions the Manager has to make. Inviting regular discussions around work and operations on an everyday basis encourages healthy communication, transparency and collaboration, making it much easier to deal with difficult matters when they do inevitably arise.

  1. Create The Right Environment

Employers should do all they can to create an open and comfortable environment, within which Employees can discuss matters to do with work, whether they are difficult discussions or simple everyday chats. An environment that encourages discussion and feedback, with Managers regularly checking in with Employees regarding their work and welfare, makes it easier to initiate difficult conversations when they are necessary, whether it’s coming from the Employer or the Employee.

  1. Focus on the Facts

When holding a difficult conversation, focus on the facts, leaving opinion and personal judgement aside.  It is far easier to discuss factual information relating to an event, than to talk about personal perspectives and feelings about said event – it is also far less likely to invite resentment or conflict.  However, it is important to be mindful of tone and delivery in fact-based discussions, so as not to appear inconsiderate or detached.

  1. Listen

Listening is an invaluable skill that good Managers should employ, especially when having difficult conversations. They should take time to fully listen to an Employee’s position, including any challenges they feel they face and their feelings about it. As much as a Manager may want to jump in with their own feedback, it is important not to interrupt an Employee while they are speaking – allow them to share their full story.

  1. Put Yourself in Their Place

Managers should always take a moment to look at any difficult matter from an Employee’s perspective. While Managers have a job to manage, that job can be made far simpler when it is based in conversation, collaboration, and mutual understanding.  Managers should acknowledge the perspectives put forward by the Employee – not only will this show that they care about the Employee, but it will likely invite more of a collaborative tone to the conversation.

  1. Discuss Solutions

Whatever the source of the difficult conversation, Employers and Employees can often find ways to work together to find solutions and improve matters for everyone involved. Getting the best outcomes from difficult conversations can be enhanced by putting together a list of actions for both the Employer and Employee to take away and act on to help improve matters or resolve issues.

Disciplinaries, redundancies and terminations should be the last resort Employers seek, having found no other possible resolutions.

There are many ways Employers, Managers, team leaders and Employees can go about facilitating difficult conversations, so that important lessons are learned, building better and stronger businesses off the back of them. If you are struggling with difficult conversations or conflict resolution in your workplace, and you need some advice or support, please do not hesitate to contact us.