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Difficult Conversations With Employees: Examples of the Dos and Don'ts

A manager having a difficult conversation with an employee in an office.

Fac­ing an unpleas­ant con­ver­sa­tion about per­for­mance with an employ­ee? You can turn it into a pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence! Fol­low our exam­ples of do’s and don’ts to ensure you han­dle the sit­u­a­tion prop­er­ly and achieve the best results.

Part of reg­u­lar per­for­mance man­age­ment is engag­ing with employ­ees, and this includes recog­nis­ing both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive performance.

Chal­leng­ing and dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions are an unfor­tu­nate part of man­age­ment. How­ev­er, when han­dled prop­er­ly, they can be huge­ly ben­e­fi­cial for fur­ther­ing an employee’s career and per­son­al devel­op­ment. 94% of employ­ees want to have these con­ver­sa­tions; they see cor­rec­tive’ feed­back as core to their career progression.

How­ev­er, if han­dled poor­ly, dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions can have impli­ca­tions not only for morale but also for staff reten­tion. 55% of work­ers have, at some point, quit their job over bad man­age­ment practices.

When hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it.

Dif­fi­cult Con­ver­sa­tions With Employ­ees: Exam­ples Of What You Should and Shouldn’t Do

Do: Have Reg­u­lar Con­ver­sa­tions With Your Employees

Meet­ing your employ­ees only to have dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions is not going to build a rap­port that is con­ducive to progress and devel­op­ment. Pulling them into your office to dis­cuss neg­a­tive per­for­mance or only ever meet­ing them for annu­al reviews will not improve the per­for­mance of your team and does not lend itself to the accep­tance of cor­rec­tive’ feedback.

If they rarely hear from you, and then when they do the words are most­ly neg­a­tive, you’ll find employ­ees strug­gle to hear and engage with the crit­i­cism pro­vid­ed, no mat­ter how con­struc­tive. Giv­ing reg­u­lar feed­back that is bal­anced helps employ­ees to devel­op their resilience so that they can accept con­struc­tive feed­back when it is necessary.

So con­sid­er intro­duc­ing reg­u­lar per­for­mance reviews instead of annu­al appraisals, stag­gered through­out the year at month­ly or quar­ter­ly inter­vals. This method allows man­age­ment to build a con­sis­tent under­stand­ing of their employ­ees’ per­for­mance — their highs and their lows. Reg­u­lar one-to-one ses­sions mean there is always scope to offer pos­i­tive feed­back on achieve­ments, strengths and pro­gres­sion. The result is that when a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion does occur, the employ­ee can under­stand that this feed­back is designed to help them to con­tin­u­ous­ly improve, and they will be more like­ly to engage with the feed­back and take it on board.

Such meet­ings also encour­age a bet­ter flow of con­ver­sa­tion between employ­ee and man­age­ment, build­ing hon­esty and trust. This can give employ­ees the con­fi­dence to voice their own opin­ions, ask ques­tions and pro­vide answers, while giv­ing man­age­ment an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lis­ten to what their staff have to say.

All of these aspects help pro­mote a work­ing envi­ron­ment where dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions can actu­al­ly be a pow­er­ful tool for change and growth. One-to-one meet­ings become more about col­lab­o­ra­tion and mutu­al benefit.

Don’t: Patro­n­ise With the Com­pli­ment Sandwich

The feed­back sand­wich’ is a sta­ple of bad man­age­ment tech­niques.

The con­cept is sim­ple: In order to not demor­alise a work­er, you offer them a com­pli­ment, pro­vide a crit­i­cism and fin­ish on a com­pli­ment. Employ­ees know of this tech­nique. Most will recog­nise when you aren’t call­ing them in to give them good feed­back, and that the pur­pose of this exer­cise is to spare them feel­ing inadequate.

Your employ­ees deserve straight­for­ward talk with hon­esty. Offer­ing them com­pli­ments to dis­guise the fact they need improve­ment is a patro­n­is­ing prac­tice that implies your work­ers are unable to take on con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. As long as the cri­tique is valid and ben­e­fi­cial and is bal­anced with reg­u­lar pos­i­tive feed­back, it does not need to be backed up by gold stars.

Do: Be Incred­i­bly Spe­cif­ic About Your Feedback

There is noth­ing worse than skirt­ing around the truth. An employ­ee needs to know exact­ly what feed­back they are get­ting, what the dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion is about and why they are hav­ing it. Be direct and spe­cif­ic with your per­for­mance review discussions.

Define what has gone wrong and how it can be cor­rect­ed in order to avoid con­fu­sion. Per­for­mance improve­ments can only occur if there is clar­i­ty around feedback.

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Don’t: Base Argu­ments on Opinion

In order to give con­struc­tive feed­back, feed­back that tru­ly ben­e­fits your employ­ee, it needs to be fac­tu­al. You must be able to present them with infor­ma­tion that says: this is where you are going wrong, and this is how you can achieve more.

If your prob­lems are based on opin­ion or per­son­al judge­ment, you’ll find you will encounter two issues with this:

  1. You are unable to pro­vide the con­struc­tive crit­i­cism need­ed to pro­mote change.
  2. Your employ­ee is able to argue against your crit­i­cism because it is not based on fact.

Using soft­ware to give real-time feed­back as events occur, which can be done using a per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem like Clear Review, ensures you are build­ing up a body of fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion that can be used to sup­port more mean­ing­ful per­for­mance dis­cus­sions, both pos­i­tive and constructive.

Do: Con­sult Oth­er Man­age­ment Before Engag­ing the Employee

Are the prob­lems you’ve iden­ti­fied actu­al­ly prob­lems? Is a dis­cus­sion in a one-to-one sce­nario the best way of deal­ing with the prob­lem, or is it an issue affect­ing mul­ti­ple staff that could be dealt with in a more effec­tive way?

Oth­er mem­bers of man­age­ment are a pow­er­ful resource that should be utilised when con­sid­er­ing bring­ing in an employ­ee for a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion. Dis­cuss with them the points you would like to address and get their thoughts on not only whether or not they are valid, but also how your col­leagues sug­gest they could best be covered.

A sec­ond opin­ion is always help­ful in a sit­u­a­tion like this. It not only helps you ensure you are jus­ti­fied in your actions but that you are also engag­ing the prob­lem in the most ben­e­fi­cial way.

Don’t: React to Emo­tion With Emotion

Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with employ­ees can include sub­jects like such pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, qual­i­ty of work and behav­iours. These type of con­ver­sa­tions, no mat­ter how they are phrased, can prompt an emo­tion­al response from an indi­vid­ual. It could be defen­sive behav­iour, anger, sad­ness, or anxiety.

Crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of your dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with an employ­ee is con­trol­ling your emo­tion­al response. If you react to this with an emo­tion­al response your­self, you jeop­ar­dise clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion and appro­pri­ate messages.

For exam­ple, if you engage in aggres­sive behav­iour, it can increase hos­til­i­ty, cre­ate new devel­op­ment bar­ri­ers and lead to an unnec­es­sary amount of pres­sure on the employ­ee. Con­verse­ly, offer­ing an over­ly sym­pa­thet­ic response may negate some of the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­cus­sion you are car­ry­ing out.

To min­imise the risk of this, ensure that you are in a calm state of mind when going into the dis­cus­sion. If you are feel­ing angry or frus­trat­ed about a neg­a­tive event that has occurred, wait until your emo­tions have died down before dis­cussing the event with the employ­ee concerned.

Man­age your employee’s per­for­mance, both the good and the bad, with Clear Review’s spe­cial­ist per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware. Track goals, get real-time feed­back and mon­i­tor progress for improved busi­ness and employ­ee growth.