In the past two years of running workshops for managers, no matter what workshop it is – there is always one topic that surfaces and that most managers want direction in.

How to have “that chat” or a difficult conversation with their employee.

Now “that chat” could be any number of things, but the most common issues are:

  • An employee isn’t meeting expectations in terms of their productivity or work quality
  • An employee isn’t going to get the pay rise or promotion they wanted
  • Providing feedback to a boss about their behaviour
  • An employee’s behaviour that is inappropriate or affecting the team negatively
  • Presentation, for instance, how an employee dresses, interacts/communicates with others
  • Talking to an employee with personal hygiene problems
  • Employee punctuality or absenteeism
  • Difficult behaviours; aggressive / passive aggressiveness, complaining, negativity
  • Employees who miss deadlines, lack of accountability
  • An employee who doesn’t work well with others, team issues

Avoiding these difficult conversations is understandable and very common. In fact, 86% of our workshop attendees said they have avoided a difficult conversation and 100% had done so on more than one occasion.

Costs of avoiding difficult conversations

I remember many years ago when I was working in a team of four people and we were managing a bulk recruitment campaign at a crucial period for the project. Everyone was working 12 hour days, stressed and we were barely keeping our heads above water. Except for one person. Let’s call him “Colin”.

Colin was a likeable guy, he was funny and engaging and enjoyable to be around. The only problem was Colin seemed allergic to hard work and was constantly making up excuses to his manager about why he couldn’t do things, thereby pushing more work onto the ‘doers’ of the team.

I spoke to Colin who merely shrugged and then my manager about the inequity and pressure on the team. Even though he said he’d noticed Colin wasn’t contributing as much as the rest of the team. Instead of taking the time to have that difficult conversation with Colin, my manager told me to just worry about my own work and ignore Colin.

Except that wasn’t easy because I was working late doing Colin’s share of the work. It may me angry, then just plain resentful. What’s more our team developed a reputation in the organisation for ‘slacking’ thanks to just one underperforming team member.

My point is, avoiding difficult conversations happens all the time and it has far reaching effects. These can include:

  • Decreasing employee engagement, eroding productivity and culture. Employees know when their peers aren’t performing and begin to wonder, “why should I work so hard when Colin isn’t and no one seems to care?”
  • Poor execution of your business strategy. Either employees aren’t aware of what is expected of them and poor performance is allowed to continue.
  • Lost time. The longer you wait to address issues the more complicated and distracting the situation is for other employees and the longer it will take to address.
  • Costs the business valuable time and resources with increased turnover of employees.
  • Can cause stress of management and employees alike.
  • Legal implications. If the first conversation you have about the employee’s performance is at the time of termination you could be exposing yourself and the business to a claim/lawsuit.

Not having those hard conversations can be a far worse than the short-term awkwardness of having them. According to a Vital Smarts 2008 study on difficult conversations, 34% put off a difficult conversation for a month, 25% put it off for a year.

So why do we do it?

The main reasons for avoiding these conversations is usually primarily concern for the individual such as causing stress, damaging their self-confidence or causing them to become upset followed by:

  • Concern about permanent damage to the working relationship
  • Concern about awkwardness or an angry response
  • Recognition that expectations were not clear
  • Concern about not being fair or not having ‘all the facts’