How to Have Difficult Conversations With Employees (and Why)

October 20th, 2023 – SkillCycle

How to Have Difficult Conversations With Employees

An inevitable part of leadership is addressing concerns with employees as they arise. Learning how to have difficult conversations with employees is a valuable skill that benefits everyone in the organization. So, what makes some conversations at work so challenging? 

“Difficult conversations tend to be any interaction where the individual we’re speaking to may have a strong emotional reaction,” says Tori Rochlen, Director of Learning Success & Enablement at SkillCycle. 

As tough as it is to conduct these conversations, “leaders cannot fix problems that we can’t even talk about,” says Gartner. Yet many managers aren’t sure how to give employee feedback in a way that feels meaningful or will inspire change. 

Some have never learned how to provide negative feedback to employees without souring the working relationship with that individual, making these interactions especially fraught. 

In this article on how to have difficult conversations with employees, we’ll explore:

  • Why employers often avoid tough conversations
  • How to have difficult conversations with employees
  • A 3-step difficult conversation framework you can follow
  • The consequences of avoiding difficult conversations
  • How to nurture a culture of open communication and feedback


Why employers often avoid tough conversations

Difficult conversation examples include unsatisfactory performance, upcoming changes in job function, or interpersonal issues. 

They can take almost any form, which is part of what makes them so challenging. There’s no way to rehearse precisely how each type of conversation might go in advance because every employee and situation is different.

“These conversations could be about performance, forthcoming changes, or other challenging topics,” says Rochlen. “The lack of practice in navigating a heightened emotional response can make a manager fearful about having these discussions.”

Yet, as much as employers may feel tempted to sidestep uncomfortable exchanges, learning to provide feedback appears necessary for success. 

Well-developed skills in coaching and giving feedback are common in companies that are getting performance management right. Over 70% of participants who felt their companies deliver effective performance management systems also indicated that their management team was trained in coaching and giving feedback, according to McKinsey

The ability to effectively deliver feedback and communicate with employees is vital, while coaching supports employees in building skills and performing to their highest capacity. 


How to have difficult conversations with employees

Some managers are unsure how to give effective employee feedback, and especially worry about how to give negative feedback to an employee. 

However, putting off these kinds of conversations can have adverse effects on the entire company. A better approach encourages viewing these interactions as opening a dialogue rather than a one-way feedback channel. 

You can increase the effectiveness of a discussion by being aware of your emotions and choosing a time to talk that aligns with the seriousness of the conversation. Paying attention to these details can help you navigate the conversation confidently.

“Identifying your own emotions as you approach these conversations is important,” says Rochlen. “Being in a heightened state of emotion yourself is unlikely to help you illustrate impact in a way that is helpful to the employee.” 

Remember that modeling calm and consistent discussions can help influence communication throughout your company. With time, these conversations will become the norm instead of heightened or frustrating exchanges.

Try the 3-step SBI difficult conversation framework

One popular framework that can be helpful as managers learn how to have difficult conversations with employees is the SBI framework. It includes situation, behavior, and impact. 

“Giving feedback is a change management process, and people must desire change in order to shift behavior,” says Rochlen. “You can only inspire that by highlighting the impact of someone’s behavior.”

Let’s look at one difficult conversation example: Imagine you need to speak with an employee about using their mobile phone during a meeting. You could remind or scold the employee after the meeting, but they may not be motivated enough to change their future behavior. 

Instead, using the SBI framework, you’d describe your concerns using the following three steps:

1. Situation

Mention the specific time and situation where you noticed the behavior. “I’d like to speak with you about something I noticed during this morning’s meeting with our new client.”

2. Behavior

Outline the behavior you observed: “I saw you using your phone during the meeting and appearing distracted as we outlined the project timeline.”

3. Impact

Describe the impact the employee’s behavior has as objectively as possible. “I’m concerned you may not have all the information you need for this project we’re working on. Without it, you may not be able to be effective in your job, and that could affect the outcome.”

Expressing your concerns in statements that follow this framework helps keep the conversation clear and objective. It also allows you to outline what was observed and why you are bringing it to an employee’s attention. Then you can ask the employee to share their thoughts on the situation. 

“The impact is the most important piece of this framework,” says Rochlen. “It helps illustrate why the feedback is important for the employee to hear.”


The consequences of avoiding difficult conversations

Dragging your heels on tough conversations can eat away at relationships between team members, driving down their ability to work together. 

“We cannot assume issues will disappear if left unaddressed,” says Rochlen. “Problems escalate, which impacts employee engagement and performance.”

Ignoring problems can create disastrous consequences that can affect how effectively a company can operate. For example, if one employee engages in behavior that negatively impacts the company and nobody mentions it, other employees may assume that behavior is condoned and adopt it themselves. 

In these situations, avoiding one conversation might create multiple friction points or poor performance in your company. Left unchecked, you may find these issues shifting the culture of your organization.


How to nurture a culture of open communication and feedback

Regular check-ins and conversations can help reduce the trepidation both managers and employees feel when a more serious discussion needs to happen. They also can ensure that staff feel comfortable offering their own feedback in return and discussing solutions. 

“It starts with enriching relationships and building trust,” says Rochlen. “Getting to know people as individuals and connecting with them when nothing negative is happening goes a long way.”

There is clear value in nurturing a culture of open and frequent communication and feedback with employees. With an understanding of how important it is to address issues as they arise and a framework to help keep conversations calm and productive, you’ll nurture stronger connections and higher engagement among your staff.

There are ways for your whole team to feel more comfortable handling difficult conversations at work. Book a call to learn more.


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