Most managers hate having to have a difficult conversation. However, these conversations part and parcel of managing because, at some point, you are going to have at talk to someone about their behaviour, about their performance or about a change that will affect them. We build up the prospect of those difficult conversations in our minds and worry that they will be emotional, awkward or will end disastrously. However, with a little planning and care, they can be handled effectively.

The reasons why we hate these conversations are obvious:

  • We are worried we will make the problem worse – in that we make them behave worse or de-motivate them further
  • We do not want other person to feel bad
  • We may hear things about ourselves we don’t want to hear
  • The other person may get emotional which makes this uncomfortable for both parties.

What not to do

As I’ve mentioned, having difficult conversations is something we all have to face. And we have to do them … there is no avoiding it, although I have seen many people try. Their avoidance tactics include:

  • Give the other party the silent treatment
  • Publicly humiliate the other party
  • Ignore the problem and hope it goes away
  • Promote the culprit out of your sight and give the problem to someone else to sort
  • Encourage someone else to deal with it
  • Take the issue out on other team members
  • Provide special treats to flatter your trouble-maker

I have seen instances of many of these, in the past, and the result of such behaviours is that you risk alienating the rest of your team, losing the trust and respect of your team or risk rewarding bad behaviour.


How to have a difficult conversation with confidence

The solution is to sit down with the other party to ensure that they are aware of the problem and allow them to find ways to address it. When you do sit down with the other party, here are some things to remember:

  1. Plan the desired outcome that you wish to see
  2. Find a neutral location where both of you feel comfortable and where you can be open and honest
  3. Guard against emotions – emotions will stop both of you thinking clearly. If either of you do get too emotional, take a break or re-schedule the meeting
  4. Ask open questions, questions that promote reflection in the other person’s mind.
  5. Keep an open mind, don’t enter into the meeting with your mind made up or jump to snap judgements in the meeting. If necessary, take a break to validate information.
  6. Use it as a chance to learn about yourself. It could be that their poor performance is being caused by something you are doing (or not doing).
  7. Try to preserve the relationship. You will still have to work together, so do not do or say anything you may regret.
  8. Be comfortable with silence. Let them know that they can pause to think, that it is OK to say nothing while they compose their thoughts.
  9. Allow them to speak and LISTEN.

Like many things, dealing with poor performance or breaking bad news requires planning and practice. The more you do it, the better you will become at it and, I find, they really don’t turn out anywhere near as badly as you might think.

When someone is not performing, it is your duty as their manager to address it. Be bold, sit down with them and talk. Help them to find a solution that you both find acceptable. You will find it so rewarding.