Handling difficult conversations with employees: Here’s what works

The Seven Fundamentals of ManagementEverybody puts off some things, but the manager who delays handling difficult conversations with employees is courting disaster.

Few people look forward to actually having difficult conversations and it’s no wonder why. Tense conversations can be like root canal.

But with some good training and support, managers can gain the confidence needed to handle these tough tasks – and turn them into a plus.

Consider this telling statistic: A survey by Learning Consultancy Partnership found that two out of three managers rated themselves as either extremely or very confident in handling difficult conversations.

But only one in five HR professionals felt their own managers did a good job with it. Worse, half of HR managers felt their people did an awful job handling difficult conversations with employees.

So, you can see there’s a big difference between perception and reality when it comes to how managers perceive their own abilities.

No choice but to have it

While there is a ton of advice available on the kinds of questions a manager might ask himself or herself before having a tough conversation, frankly there is really just one question a manager needs to answer:  What happens if you don’t have the conversation?

It if is truly a difficult conversation on an issue that requires change, then you have no choice but to have it, because the damage that occurs if you don’t have the discussion is not an option.

That said, here is a straightforward, six-step plan to approach any tough conversation.

  1. Ask for permission from the person to have the talk. It’s enticing to think “I’m the boss, so why should I ask permission!” But a manager who genuinely wants to succeed is best off letting the person know that you have an issue that needs discussing, and even letting the person pick the place and time, within reason of course. It will help the person have a sense of control.
  2. Handle the opening with kid gloves. Let the person know this is going to be a tough conversation, but that is has to happen. If you’re talking about personal habits or dress, it’s OK to say you’re uncomfortable about the discussion, too. (NOTE: If it’s the second or third time you are discussing the same problem with the same person, go right at it.)
  3. After you’ve opened, let the person know you are having this talk because the issue needs to be addressed if the person expects to succeed in your organization. Reinforce that you are there to help the person succeed, and that if you had no interest in the person’s success, you wouldn’t bother having the talk.
  4. Turn it into a positive. Let the person know how much better his or her job and/or career position will be after the change is made. Good people respond positively when paths to improvement and success and clearly defined and made available to them.
  5. Get agreement about what needs to be done to make the change happen. Set deadlines, and put in place a system to keep track of progress.
  6. Stay with it. Follow-up is key. The more feedback the better, and it reinforces the need to continue to improve. It’s human nature not to want to return to these difficult topics, so the feedback should focus on how well the improvement is going, and not on the problem that was fixed.

Practice makes perfect

The art of conversation is in fact an art! Here are a few suggestions to get better at it.

  • Start with the end in mind. Remember and return to your purpose when things get difficult.
  • Don’t take it personally.
  • Practice the conversation and anticipate the possibilities.  Visualize yourself handling those possibilities and envision a good outcome.

 This is the first in a series of articles on the 7 fundamentals of management. To see the other articles, please go to The 7 fundamentals of management page.


  1. Hello:
    Where/who can I ask permission to reprint a blog and/or article?
    Thank you,
    Davina Harrison

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