Awkward conversations at work

Written by
Sarah Brennan

25 Jan 2017

25 Jan 2017 • by Sarah Brennan

Before I share recommendations on how to make these situations easier, I need to highlight that managing people is not easy. In fact having this type of conversation is up there with some of the hardest things you will do as a leader.

In my experience of coaching managers on having effective conversations with their teams, I’ve found that the types of issues they’re tackling vary wildly; from inappropriate dress in the office, to body odour issues, to unacceptable behaviour and, perhaps most commonly, poor performance. No matter what the issue, I have a few tips that apply each and every time. 

Making sure you actually tackle the issue may seem obvious, but it amazes me how many managers know there’s an issue, but sweep it under the carpet in the hope it will eventually right itself. 

Not confronting the core problem can have an enormous knock-on effect, particularly when it’s a behavioural or performance issue. Productivity can decrease as the broader team becomes fixated on the issue and, in extreme cases, can even trigger bullying if it isn’t dealt with.  

But how do you have the conversation? Giving effective feedback isn’t as straightforward as you may think. However, if you follow a few simple guidelines, you’ll find giving feedback not only gets easier, but it is actually far better received.

Timing is everything:

Make sure that it is timely; I’d recommend within 72 hours of a specific event where possible. The danger of leaving it any longer than this is that it dilutes the message and gives the impression that it can’t be that big a deal, or it would have been picked up sooner. 

Give evidence:

Ensure any feedback is evidence-based and not just personal opinion. For example, saying “in that meeting, you raised your voice on several occasions and waved your finger in Graham’s face” is very different to simply saying “you’re aggressive”. 

The latter is personal opinion and labels the employee; something that is highly likely to elicit a very negative response as it can feel as though they are being personally ‘attacked’ and triggers an emotional reaction. 

In giving only the evidence, the employee is only faced with facts. 

Share the effect:

Starting with the facts doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go on to talk about the impact of their behaviour, for example “as a result of you raising your voice and pointing your finger I felt intimidated” or “that sort of behaviour goes against the values of the company”. In fact explaining the impact of the issue is fundamental in managing these conversations. Without understanding the impact, the employee may see no real issue, and therefore feel the feedback is pointless.

Own the feedback:

Make sure the feedback is your own, and where that isn’t possible, ask for specific examples (evidence) from the person who is providing the feedback. Without specifics, the employee may, again, feel as though it is personal or they may just dispute that there even is an issue, and if you haven’t witnessed anything yourself, you aren’t really in a position to argue your case.


Be clear on change:

Be very clear with the employee what it is that they need to change in order to resolve the issue. Ending the conversation after giving them the feedback may leave the employee completely bewildered about what is expected of them going forward, or unsure about how to put right whatever is currently wrong. Saying “I need you to…” before explaining what the required change is, will ensure they know not doing it isn’t really an option (as opposed to “would you mind” or “if you could”).

Give them time:

Finally, allow the employee some time to digest the feedback. The way our brains work means that when we feel emotional, it is extremely difficult to think rationally. The above tips will certainly help to minimise any emotional reaction, but they won’t avoid it completely in every situation. 

So if you can see that an employee is reacting in an emotional way to what you are saying, allow them some time and space to come back down to their emotional baseline where they are able to think rationally again. After they have got over the initial shock, maybe even anger or excuses, you will find that they start to become far more accepting of what you had to say. Rushing this process will only serve to keep them in an emotional state.

These tips are not specific to any particular issue, they can be followed whatever the cause for the difficult conversation. Just making sure any feedback is specific and evidence based, delivered in a timely manner and provides clarity on what changes are required, will mean that the next time you are asked about a difficult conversation, it isn’t a tale of horror you recall!