How to Have a Difficult Conversation With a Team Member

By Guest blogger - Oct. 5, 2015
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Editors Note: This is a guest post written by Nick Hedges, the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners. His opinions are his own.

Ahh. The dreaded ‘difficult conversation’.

How often do you find yourself in the difficult position where you realise you probably need to have a fairly awkward (and perhaps somewhat intense) conversation with a poor performer, a disruptive employee, or someone on the team who is simply not pulling their weight and dragging the rest of the team behind them?

As a Human Resource practitioner I find that this is an all too common occurrence and because of that, the business owner or manager will either simply avoid it, or sugar coat the conversation, so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings. While the business might be bleeding money or resources by not having the critical and crucial conversation, at least the employee is feeling ok.

Sound familiar?

I recently had a manager tell me that “they’re (the employee) going away on holidays soon and when they return I’m sure they’ll be better”. My response was, “why would they be better after working like that for 5 years just because they’ve been away on holidays?”. The real problem here in the manager procrastinating was the issue of needing to have a meaningful and honest conversation.

Here are my tips for any business owner or manager having to have a difficult conversation with a team member:

1. Be honest

This is always stated however this goes hand in hand with being authentic (next point). Being honest means telling it like it is.

If you need to tell someone that they are underperforming then say, “you are underperforming”. If you are disappointed in the person for not delivering the project on time, then say “I am disappointed with how long you took to deliver the project.” Being honest does not mean sugar coating. It means delivering a message that is true and straight to the point.

2. Be authentic

This is different to being honest. Authentic is defined as being “accurate in representation of the facts; trustworthy; reliable” (Collins Dictionary). To me this means being genuine, or ‘fair dinkum’ as some might say in this part of the world. Being authentic means speaking from your heart and head and not from a text book. It means trying to convey a message that is real.

3. Be prepared

Regardless of whether you choose to set the meeting up formally or informally, you must be totally prepared. There is nothing worse for the person on the receiving end of what is essentially a negative message than to receive a waffly message or told things that are not on point.

Whatever your method, have notes in front of you; have specific documentation to refer to; have their job description or the policy that they have breached. Above all be prepared. If you have to practise in front of the mirror, your partner or your best friend to make it clear and succinct then do it!

4. Be assertive. Not aggressive

I have been confronted with situations many times where the person receiving the message (quite understandably) becomes defensive. The tendency of the manager is typically to then also start to raise their voice and become uncomfortable and therefore their body language and tone start to match that of the employee.

The key is to be assertive. That is, be confident in the dialogue with them. Try to look for a win/win outcome. Try to achieve a mutually satisfying outcome that will benefit both parties. Being aggressive never served anyone well.

5. Don’t be afraid to reconvene

In the rare case where an employee starts to become irrational and aggressive, take back control of the meeting and re-convene for the following morning. There will be nothing to be gained in the short term by trying to assert your position. In the end, you are the business owner or manager and it is your meeting not theirs. It is also your message of their performance, so it is for you to take control and deliver it without unnecessary commotion.

6. Avoid buying into emotion

The circumstances for the poor performance may be perfectly valid ones or one in which you hold a great deal of empathy. The key, however, is not to buy into the emotion. Allow the person some time to take a break and gather themselves physically and emotionally, but it is important that your message still gets delivered.

7. Ask the recipient for a solution

If the problem is poor performance or behaviour for example, ask the person how they see themselves being able to rectify the issue. Get their buy in and commitment to fixing the problem (assuming it is fixable!). This is critical in order to rehabilitate the employee back into better performance. They need to be part of the solution.

8. Ask for help

No matter how many times you have had a difficult conversation in the workplace, they are still difficult. It’s OK to ask for advice from a friend or a colleague (be mindful of confidentiality here) to assist you with your delivery. If it’s reasonable, you may even want to ask for someone else to be in the room with you for your support.

Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners.


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