Seven tips to help with difficult employee conversations

There’s an old saying that it is difficult at the top. In business this is especially true, as one of the most challenging and even stressful tasks that a manager faces is giving productive and effective feedback to employees. Being in a position of leadership demands a lot of time and energy that is focused on people management. It’s essential for leaders to identify and correct any performance issues when it comes to their staff members.

Though highlighting these issues for improvement can be a delicate and sensitive subject for many employees. Learning how to best communicate with colleagues and deliver constructive criticism that doesn’t destroy office and employee enthusiasm is crucial to the success of your organization. Whether your feedback is positive or negative, it should be aimed at motivating employees to stick to goals and key performance indicators, while also keeping morale high. Getting this balance right can make the difference between thriving and failing.

The best foundation for this environment is in open and proactive lines of communication. Don’t wait for your employees to pin you down to talk. Instead, maintain regular check-ins or updates in between official reviews. Should major issues pop up, it’s helpful to tackle them early on via open communication to prevent surprises and stress later on. A steady and consistent delivery of both good and bad updates also goes a long way in building a healthier workplace and builds a more positive coaching environment.

To help you deliver difficult feedback in a positive way, following these seven top tips will ensure a happier, more productive workplace.

1. Choose Your Approach

Giving constructive feedback to direct reports is a major part of being a boss, after all when they win, you all win. Approaching your employees in an open way and asking to share your observations of them and their work politely will help you both maintain an open mind in difficult situations.

It’s also important to understand your organization’s chain of command and where responsibilities lie. If you have feedback to give about an employee that isn’t your direct report, make sure your respecting their manager and proper reporting lines.

2. Don’t Procrastinate

Having sensitive conversations about performance issues can be an anxiety-inducing situation. Yet timing is crucial, so don’t put off having difficult conversations. If you are noticing performance or behavioral issues in an employee, don’t put off speaking to them until you feel like it’s the right time to talk. Addressing issues as they come up prevents them from turning into major problems, and saves your employees the embarrassment or worry of them becoming a more frustrating issue later on.

Try your best to find an appropriate time to sit down with colleagues to have these discussions. If a clear opportunity doesn’t present itself immediately, drop them a friendly email to ask for a good time to sit down together in the near future. Having a brief dialogue early on saves you from a long argument in the future.

3. Pick a Comfortable Location

Choosing where to have a delicate conversation can be just as important as what you say. Delivering feedback in a large crowded meeting or team update isn’t appropriate to help employees absorb and act on what you want to get across. Sitting down one-on-one in a conference room or popping out for a lunch or coffee is preferable for making everyone feel comfortable and open to receiving input.

A neutral location can also be a good place to begin a conversation on moving forward and improving, as it removes many of the distractions you might have if you were meeting in your personal office space.

4. Keep It Face-to-Face

You may be tempted to avoid difficult conversations by moving them to email or instant messaging, but performance discussions should always be held face-to-face. It’s important to speak openly and with the right tone while delivering feedback, which digital forms of communication can hinder.

Taking the time to sit down with employees personally not only ensures that you’re getting your point across but also that you’re facilitating a more open and honest dialogue. You’ll also have a greater sensitivity to how your information is being absorbed, making it easier to be productive and proactive in solving any issues.

5. Include Specifics

If you need to deliver some difficult criticism, it’s crucial to provide context for it. You can’t expect anyone to change or take positive action if you give them only vague directions or concerns. Undirected complaints can also damage trust or make employees feel backed into a corner.

You want to focus on the behavior or issue and not the person themselves so they don’t feel attacked or take it personally. Don’t be afraid to give specific directions or thoughts for improvement, but be accepting for employees to give suggestions in the plan of action as well. This is also a good opportunity to bring in good examples or reinforce positive behaviors so it isn’t all negative, and it leaves the door open for improvement.

6. Learn to Listen

Giving feedback should be a conversation and not a sermon. Both you and your employee should both be contributing to the discussion, acknowledging the problem, and brainstorming the solution. You can’t move forward if your direct report can’t get a word in.

Remember to ask them questions as well. People are more likely to be successful when they have a hand in their own work towards this goal. This helps to empower employees to be a more motivated and active part of your organization.

7. Set Goals

Finally, you should always be able to walk away from a feedback conversation with a plan of action for improvement. You should wrap up your conversation by brainstorming realistic goals and performance indicators that you can implement on a mutually agreed timeline.

This also ensures that you’re both held accountable and makes it easier to work together to build a better organization.

Being a great leader and effective manager will result in team success but requires a wide range of skills. IAW offers the support and resources to help you be a great team leader. Learn more about how IAW can help you be more effective while growing your career.

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