“Meet me in my office. There’s something we need to discuss.” Hearing those words can strike dread in the hearts of employees, which is why so many managers and supervisors are so reluctant to say them. However, the ability to have difficult conversations, and to make those conversations both effective and productive, is an essential skill for any good manager.
Most of us instinctually avoid unpleasant situations and conflict, particularly in the workplace where we spend a large portion of our waking hours. Remember, though, that avoiding a tough conversation won’t make the problem at hand go away; in fact, avoidance often makes the situation worse.
For the purpose of today’s discussion, we’re not talking about termination meetings, but rather conversations that relate to performance issues; behavioral issues; interpersonal conflicts; or corporate news or policies that are not likely to be well-received, such as the announcement that your company won’t be offering raises or bonuses. In cases outside the simple delivery of bad news, you should begin by evaluating the scope of the problem and then investigate the facts. For example, if an employee is routinely taking longer than the proscribed time for lunch, it may be the case that he or she is ill, or caring for a child or parent. Try your best to determine if there are outside or mitigating factors.
If you can’t resolve the issue, or have difficult news to deliver, you should plan your conversation carefully. Be sensitive to time and place and most certainly address things such as performance and behavioral issues in private. Make notes prior to the meeting so you can remember what to say. If you have an HR department, consult with that team prior to the meeting as well.
During the meeting, be specific and factual–for example, “I noticed that you came in after 10 six times in the last month.” Use “I phrases” whenever possible. Rather than saying, “You’re always late and it’s not fair to others in the department,” try instead, “I need you here to be part of the team for our morning meetings. I’m counting on you to know what’s going on that day.” These semantic differences may seem small, but they can absolutely change how the message is received.
Also, remember to listen to the employee–either to his or her side of the story, or, in the case of unpleasant corporate news, to his or her feelings. You may gather important information that will help you proceed. End the meeting by working together to agree on a resolution. This might include a formal performance improvement plan, offering the employee additional resources and training, or, in the case of a personal issue, providing access to the services of an employee assistance program.
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