Have the Hard Conversation

It is not uncommon for managers to struggle with having hard conversations with their employees. This can be especially true of managers who are relatively new to managing others. I don’t want to digress too much, but we are in a very strange time in our society where things like being direct and honest have become offensive and even labeled as aggressive. Everywhere you look there is someone protesting something, crying about something, and talking about life not being fair. To that, I say:


However, the problem is that this inability to have a direct conversation is creeping into business. Certain individuals may have never been dealt with or led directly by their parents and teachers, so anything other than “You are doing great Joey!!!” sounds to them like you are being unnecessarily mean. What does this do to our company culture? It creates a very superficial, very polite, and HORRIBLY ineffective culture where we don’t talk openly, we don’t speak directly, and we are afraid at every turn to hurt someone’s feelings or somehow offend them. 


If not, then it is time to recognize that having the hard conversations must be a key part of your company workplace. The hard conversations I’m referring to will stem from several places.  Perhaps you have an employee with a poor attitude. Or you have an employee who simply isn’t pulling his/her weight and hasn’t delivered the results. Maybe you have someone who is rude to your customers. My hunch is that if you are interested in being a good manager, you have already identified issues that you want to address, but maybe you aren’t sure how to approach it. And if this is the case, please read on!

Practice Makes Perfect?

For starters, practice what you are going to say to your employee. I prefer to do this in the mirror so I can see how I look, and how it might sound to my employee. I might practice repeatedly, depending on how difficult I expect the conversation to be. If it is a really challenging conversation, I may ask a friend or associate to role-play with me so that I can practice it in real-time and ask for feedback. 

Get Ready to Talk

When you meet with your employee, go somewhere private where you can close the door.  I also recommend that you don’t sit with a desk between you and your employee, as it creates a barrier physically and psychologically that reduces your conversation.  Set up your chairs so that you are facing each other.

Next, get straight to the point. Start your conversation out directly and matter of fact. Don’t spend time asking about how the kids are, how is your morning, etc. This feels passive aggressive and is sort of like putting sugar in bad tasting medicine. You want to address the issue head-on.  For example:

  • Beau, thanks for meeting with me, I want to speak with you about your attitude…

  • Joe, thanks for meeting with me, I want to talk with you about the behavior I saw yesterday at the team meeting.

  • Cathy, thanks for meeting with me, I want to talk with you about feedback I received from a customer.

 Then you should articulate exactly and directly what you saw or heard, and why it concerns you:

  • At the team meeting, your body language seemed like you would have rather been anywhere else on the planet than in that meeting. I don’t want anyone on our team that doesn’t want to be there, so I thought we should talk about it…so, what’s going on? 

  • I have noticed lately that you seem to be very short with your co-workers and with me, and I am worried that you are creating a situation that will make it hard for people to work with you, and work with our team. That’s not what I want for our team so I wanted to talk to you and compare notes. 

  • One of our customers called me directly and said that you basically told them that their emergency didn’t create an emergency for you. That doesn’t sound like you, but I take these things very seriously, so I wanted to come directly to you and talk about it…

You may have to give more details such as you “noticed it on Tuesday,” or your “customer called yesterday.” The point is that you are starting out the conversation directly about the topic you want to speak with your employee about. 

Time to Listen

After you get the conversation started, it’s time for you to shut-up and listen. It is time for you to give your employee time to think and respond to what you have just told them. Depending on you, your employee, your relationship, the situation, and about 1,000 other variables, you can receive all sorts of responses. However, the point is that you will stop talking and you will listen for your employee to give you some sort of response. 

As managers, we often get all wrapped up and worried about things that our employees are sometimes happily oblivious to. We are dreading the conversation, we are worried about being mean, worried about being offensive, worried about upsetting them. And the employee is often unaware that there is even a situation or a problem that needs to be addressed. Part of the purpose of this conversation is to allow your employee to become aware of the situation.

Once your employee responds, listen carefully to what is being said to you. It is also important that you hear what isn’t being said. Is the person defensive? Is the person surprised? Is the person looking everywhere except back at you? Does the person’s body language reflect discomfort (is he/she squirming in the chair?) Depending on what you see and hear and will dictate what comes next. However, as much as possible, you want to make the discussion a conversation so that there is a give-and-take. You must listen and converse, you must ask questions, and the employee needs to be discussing with you. Don’t let the intensity of the conversation cause you to ramble on about anything. This conversation isn’t a monologue, it needs to be a discussion. 

You should also recognize that, depending on the situation, there may need to be more than one conversation. You may have to ask the employee to think it over and reconvene tomorrow or a week from now. You may have to pull information out of them if they shut-down, and you may have to follow up to ensure that corrective action has been taken. 

What Happens Next?

After you talk through the circumstances of the situation, you need to ask and discuss what needs to happen next. It might be a simple misunderstanding where the employee was unaware and you have now done your part to make them aware. It might be an agreement to work on something as a go-forward plan or it might even be a written improvement plan that you develop with your employee detailing what you need to see happen. The point is that it is not as important what happens, as long as you and your employee agree that something needs to happen. You also want to agree if or when you will continue the conversation, and the specific and detailed action items to work on to prevent the problem from arising again.

Having hard business conversations are not about being mean or offending employees. They are simply about solving problems in an effective, honest, respectful, and direct manner. Sugar-coating problems or completely overlooking them will do nothing for the culture and the growth and development of your organization. When approached correctly, the conversations won’t be offensive, and in fact, they can build a better and more trusting relationship between you as a manager and your employees. Your employees will respect the feedback even if it stings at first, and will learn that they can come to you with issues and you will react in a fair and direct manner.  A direct problem-solving process is a key to a strong and effective culture, so don’t be afraid to get out there and do it.