Ask the Expert: How to Have Hard Conversations

Alliance News, Ask the Expert |

This article was originally published in the Union Leader on February 26, 2024.

Communication is a key skill in all roles in the organization but particularly important when you are managing people. Conversations are easy when the topics include thank you for doing a great job, you crushed that presentation, or you really stepped up to help with the project and we appreciate your efforts.

Conversations about improvement in work performance or getting along with teammates is a whole different kind of conversation, one most managers tell me they would rather not have. But these kinds of conversations don’t have to be hard.

Avoiding conversations about work performance issues and not providing timely feedback to an employee deprives the employee of the chance to correct the issue or explain what they may need to be successful. Being honest, kind, and detailed is key to having these hard conversations.

Here are three steps you can follow to have a productive conversation.

One– get yourself prepared for the conversation. Write down what the problem is and a few examples of the problem. Providing specific situations will make the conversation more factual. See if you can identify any obstacles or missing essential items the employee may need to do their job successfully.

Two– write down what the expectation(s) are for resolving the problem. Be specific, what does the employee need to do to rectify the situation. This prep work will provide you with the script and essential points of the conversation when you meet with the employee and give you confidence in having the conversation. You may note I did not say write them up or provide them with a work improvement plan. The very first conversation with the employee should be an exploratory and solution-driven conversation.

Three– have the conversation – when you meet with the employee make sure it is in a private space without interruption. Have the conversation in a timely fashion, not three months after the fact. Start the conversation with something like “I need to talk to you about X” or “We value you as an employee and I need to share some feedback with you”. Reference what you have written down and stay on task. Really listen to any obstacles the employee may have regarding performing their work to meet expectations. Then ask the employee what ideas they may have for resolving the work performance issue. After the meeting, write up a summary and the next steps. This summary would include a detailed email with agreed upon tasks and deadlines or an ongoing communication document so that each meeting is documented. Then follow up regularly providing feedback on progress.

Hard conversations usually stem from having to tell someone something you think they will not want to hear. Here is where the culture of your organization makes such a difference. If you have a person-centered culture in which each employee truly feels valued, they will take a hard conversation and use that to improve their value to the organization. Using the conversation to evaluate their contributions in the role and the organization they can work with you on goals to meet performance expectations. Or you may find out through this conversation that they may have skills in other areas in which they would be more suited. Showing your vested interest in their success and guiding someone on the path to get there will make the conversation a vision-forward conversation. Allowing for some open dialogue about what matters to the organization and the employee results in a productive conversation. After many consultations with managers and employees I have learned that honest, kind feedback works. On the rare occasion when someone may become upset or is not able to hear your feedback taking a pause and reframing your words will allow for a respectful conclusion of the conversation.

Of course, there are times when the conversation may lead to the employee and you deciding that the role is indeed not a good fit. That is O.K., having the conversation in a timely fashion saves you as the manager and the employee the emotional toll it takes when expectations are not being met and success feels fleeting. Having a hard conversation does not have to be daunting. With just a little bit of preparation you will the confidence you need to have a conversation, hard or not.

Sherry Harding is Director of People Experience at Sunrise Labs. With over 20 years of experience in human resources, operations, and training, Sherry Harding is an experienced people operations professional with a passion for providing a meaningful and purposeful career path to all employees. Sherry received her accounting and management degree from Franklin Pierce College and her master’s degree in organizational leadership from Southern New Hampshire University. She has been certified as an HR professional through HRCI and SHRM since 2001.