How to Have a Difficult Conversation With an Employee

It's never easy to have a difficult conversation with an employee, but it's a skill that every manager should learn. These conversations can be challenging for a number of reasons: as a manager, you may not know how to approach the issue, you might be afraid of how the employee will react, or you might not want to upset them. However, avoiding these types of conversations can become disruptive and damaging to your team in the long run.

Although difficult conversations can be uncomfortable, conflict is not inherently bad. Learning how to productively have a difficult conversation with an employee can help you create a feedback culture and build an environment of trust. These conversations also provide an opportunity to resolve issues before they become bigger problems.

Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. There will always be differences of opinion and disagreements between employees. All teams experience conflict and difficult situations. However, how you handle these conflicts can make a big difference in your team's overall productivity and morale.

There are multiple causes of conflict in the workplace, including:

  • Personality clashes
  • Differences in opinion
  • Miscommunication
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities

When conflict does arise, it's important to approach the situation in a constructive and positive way. Effective leaders approach conflict with an empathetic attitude and careful preparation. By learning about your team’s predominant conflict style, you can understand what is driving your team’s behavior and use this insight to take action.

Why It's Important to Have Tough Conversations

Transparency between upper management and employees is essential for a healthy workplace environment. Consider how employees respond to a perceived pay gap. When employees perceive there is a pay gap, regardless of whether the pay gap actually exists, it results in a 16% decrease in intent to stay. When company and team leaders fail to build a culture of trust, employees are likely to assume the worst. 

The inability to approach difficult conversations can lead to unproductive conflict involving repetitive and frequent arguments.  The result leaves both parties feeling more frustrated while the underlying issue is never addressed. Conversely, productive conflict involves open exchange throughout which different ideas are impartially heard. The process of productive conflict provides an environment where both parties feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions and feel respectively heard. 

Rather than striving to avoid conflict, leaders can be more effective by focusing on encouraging productive conflict. This type of exchange builds and preserves strong relationships that fuel high-performing teams and the organizations that depend on them. 76% of employees believe that their manager sets the culture of their workplace. Yet, 1 in 5 Americans is uncomfortable engaging in conversations with their manager. Another 1 out of 5 employees has left a job due to workplace culture, leading to a whopping $223 billion cost of turnover due to workplace culture in the last five years. Avoiding difficult conversations can lead to toxic workplace culture and high turnover. 

Conversely, learning how to effectively navigate these conversations can rally teams and improve innovation and collaboration. Identifying your team’s predominant conflict style can help you manage and navigate conflict. 

Tips for Navigating Difficult Conversations

As a leader, it's critical to create an environment that prioritizes psychological safety and allows team members to be vulnerable and take risks. Psychological safety is a critical element of effective teams. It is the atmosphere that makes employees feel comfortable enough to take part in discussions and leverage their strengths to collaborate on innovative projects. The first step to creating a psychologically safe environment comes from upper management. When leaders model clear and open communication with a willingness to listen to different viewpoints, they can successfully mitigate conflicts and demonstrate how team members can work together to address difficult issues. 

These tips can help you navigate difficult conversations calmly with respect for all parties involved.

Build a Culture of Feedback to Establish Trust

When conflicts arise, they can be solved easily when employees feel comfortable approaching team or company leaders for assistance. Creating a feedback culture means eliminating the idea that feedback is related to criticism and encouraging employees at all levels to speak up frequently in the workplace. Employees who are confident that company leaders will truly listen to their concerns are more likely to enter difficult conversations with a solution-oriented mindset.

Enter the Conversation with a Flexible Goal

Learning as much as possible about the conflict or issue at hand can help you prepare for the best possible outcome. However, an agenda can make a tough conversation feel one-sided. Prepare for the conversation with as much knowledge as possible and address your own feelings about the conflict before the conversation begins. Once you're prepared to address the situation calmly, address the issue with a clear description of what you understand is going on.

Listen Carefully

When you expect a conversation to go a certain direction, it can be easy to miss critical aspects of the conflict and the underlying cause. While you need to address the issue directly, it's important to include an inquiry to allow employees to offer an explanation or even correct you if you've been misinformed. When your employees speak, listen with empathy; it will help you to understand why the underlying issue of conflict, poor behavior, or low work ethic exists. By taking the time to truly understand the problem from your employee's point of view, you may be surprised to learn the situation is different than you imagined. 

Be Honest and Straightforward

The best way to approach a difficult conversation is to be honest and straightforward. This doesn't mean being confrontational, but rather simply expressing what you're observing and how it's impacting the team or company. If you can have a calm discussion about the situation and share your concerns, you're more likely to find a resolution that works for everyone.

Seek Solutions Together

Brainstorm together to determine what changes need to happen and how all parties can generate such changes. Depending on the issue, you may create a formal plan for improvement. For instance, an issue regarding performance might require a roadmap for improvement, while conflict about a project that is complete might not need a resolution. Either way, the conversation should end with an understanding that allows everyone to move forward while maintaining healthy relationships. 

Need Help with Challenging Conversations?

Taking on challenging conversations is never easy. However, it's an essential part of maintaining healthy working relationships. As a leader, you’re in a position to provide a model of healthy conflict resolution for all employees. No matter how challenging a conversation is, team leaders can still benefit from being a part of them. Use difficult conversations to get to know employees better, deepen co-worker relationships, and gain internal data. When approached correctly, difficult conversations can lay the foundation for a more productive workplace.

With RallyBright’s proven behavioral science and professional development tools, leaders can build resilient teams that drive better business results – even when faced with difficult conversations. Request a demo to learn about improving your team’s performance.

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