How to have difficult conversations with employees

In an interview with 200 executives, it was discovered that 53% of executives admitted to avoiding difficult conversations because they felt they didn’t have the training or the experience to handle them. Of those who avoided conversations, 97% did so because of the stress that it caused them — and 80% were concerned that the conversation would escalate into anger. The role of a CEO is no different; difficult conversations with employees are stressful. Unfortunately, they are still necessary.

Being able to tackle difficult situations in the workplace is a defining characteristic of a CEO. A true leader doesn’t just manage difficult conversations; they excel at turning difficult conversations towards a positive goal. But all of that takes experience and self-awareness. Here are some of the key factors to mastering difficult conversations with employees.

Set the right tone 

It’s important to start any conversation with a positive tone — otherwise, you can easily put your employee on the defensive. Handling a difficult conversation is very much about reducing the emotions that are in play. An emotional person will not be receptive to your feedback and your direction. There are many things that can influence the tone of a conversation:

  • Environment. Being ‘called into the office’ can be stressful in and of itself, and it’s important to understand that your employee is already going to have their guard up. Consider an alternative approach, such as walking up to your employee and asking them, ‘Would you mind having a talk with me in the conference room?’ For difficult conversations, neutral territory may be best.
  • Body language.It can be difficult to control your body language, especially if you yourself are upset or frustrated. As a CEO, your employees are going to take their cues from you; if you seem agitated and upset, they will be as well. Keep your body loose and relaxed, avoid any aggressive movements, and take some time to just breathe.
  • Mindset. What is your ultimate goal for this encounter? If it’s a combative one, then the encounter will probably be combative. Your mentality going into a difficult conversation should be to ask about the other person’s point of view and to work together to find a solution.
  • Opening. Your opening sentence should be inclusive rather than, ‘I need to talk to you about something,’ say ‘May we talk about something?

It’s important to align yourself with your employee so that you can work together during the conversation. While you may feel that the employee themselves is a roadblock or that they have caused a situation, it is still true that you and the employee are going to need to work together and resolve it. As a CEO, this bigger picture will override any smaller frustrations.

Be clear about the issue, but don’t oversimplify the problem

Effective leaders are able to convey complex topics in simple terms, but that in itself can be an art form. When describing an issue, CEOs need to achieve a balance between being concise and being clear. There can be a temptation to oversimplify an issue — either to get the conversation over with or to gloss over some of the negativity. Unfortunately, that gives the employee an incorrect perception of the issue. They may not treat it appropriately or even take it seriously. Eventually, this leads to frustration, as the leader perceives a problem that the employee still does not.

  • Don’t go into unnecessary detail. When describing an issue, discuss only the facts that are pertinent to the employee — and only give enough for the employee to both understand the issue and understand the desired outcome. The employee doesn’t need to know the intricacies of the situation. They need to know what to do to complete their work more effectively.
  • Ask questions to determine whether the employee fully understands the issue. What is clear to you may not necessarily be clear to the employee; after all, you have more data to work with regarding the situation than they do. Rather than assuming that the situation has been resolved at the end of the conversation, ask the employee questions — such as what they will do next to resolve the problem.

Communication is all about clarity, and clarity often requires brevity. Complex situations should be distilled into a few concise statements; this will ensure that the employee will understand the issue and be able to appropriately tackle it.

Prepare for the meeting, but do not rehearse

As a CEO, it’s likely that quite a lot of your life involves preparation. The more prepared you are, the better the outcome. Having difficult conversations is no different. Before you tackle a difficult conversation, you need to have as full an understanding of the situation as possible. You should understand the facts of the situation, be able to articulate why it is an issue, and have suggestions for moving forward.

But preparation is far different from rehearsal. When you’re concerned about a conversation, it would be easy to go over it many times in your head. But eventually you would end up developing a script — and scripting can be dangerous. When you operate from a script, you stop listening to the other person. You are no longer able to effectively communicate with them and answer their questions. Instead, you’ll find yourself going back to your script, again and again.

Avoiding rehearsal will make it easier for you to connect directly to your employee and to listen to them. Remember: your prior knowledge may not always be accurate, and you may not always have a full picture of the situation. Being open to your employee means that you can be open to changing your preconceptions and open to solutions that may differ from the ones that you had previously devised.

Know your objectives, stay positive and future focused

It’s easy to get derailed through the course of a conversation, especially a difficult or defensive one. This may involve becoming bogged down in arguing details rather than looking at the bigger picture. Rather than seeking to position themselves at an indefensible point (such as whether or not a project was delivered late), defensive employees may begin to argue finer points (such as who was responsible for delivering a specific part of the project late).

This can be avoided by remaining positive, staying on track, and focusing on the future. It’s always possible to argue what has happened in the past; it is less possible to argue about what needs to happen going forward. Practically speaking, the major concern is not who was guilty or culpable; it’s being assured that the situation will not occur again.

Regardless of the content of the discussion, it must always end with a clear, concise goal for the future. This is what gives your employee something to focus on moving forward.

Master the art of conversation

As a leader, you have to be able to tackle difficult conversations head-on. Developing this talent will serve you well throughout your career, and will lead to better business outcomes throughout your organisation.

It can be difficult to face frustrated or aggressive employees, especially when you are perceived as opposition rather than help. Luckily, you’re not alone. TEC’s network of experienced, knowledgeable CEOs can help give you tips that have served them well throughout their tenure, developing your social skills and building up your network. Contact TEC today to find out more.