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Need to Have a Tough Conversation with an Employee?  Here’s how.

There are days when being a boss or manager can be the greatest opportunity in the world, helping shape and guide members of your team

On other days, it’s a little more frustrating and delicate. No one likes to give feedback to their employees that is in any way negative, because that will go overlooked and written off as criticism. But sometimes, difficult conversations have to happen for the team to regroup and fix the problems that have come up. 

There are ways to make this unpleasant experience less tense and stressful!

Take these steps into consideration:

Start with storytelling and praise.

Depending on how well you know the employee who needs to be corrected or with whom you must share a difficult conversation, talk first about what they’re doing well. Talk about successes and improvements you’ve seen them make. If you don’t know them well, if they’re a new hire or someone who’s been transferred to your team, ask them what they like about their job, what they feel is their best skill, or what they think they’re good at when it comes to work. When you have a sense of their strengths, and how it applies to their job, you can talk about the excellent work they’re doing, the good work they’re capable of doing, and how you want to see them continue to grow and succeed. 

Gently approach the problem with clarity and compassion.

After chatting for a few minutes, bring up the issue at hand. Make it clear whether the employee is in trouble, in danger of being written up, or failing to meet your expectations in this position. Be as specific as possible, using examples if you can, to drive home that this has been observed and you’re concerned it could become problematic, or it’s already a problem that could become worse. Sometimes people fall into bad habits, or pick up lazy shortcuts, without even realizing anyone notices the difference. 

Talk about solutions, but make it a conversation.

Propose ways to improve whatever the challenge might be. If someone’s not performing up to their standards, suggest they take a little more time with their work or feel empowered to ask questions if they’re confused about a new project or task. If there’s an interpersonal conflict, work to improve communication between the parties or see if other arrangements need to be made to split people up or get them to work through their differences. Ask why the problem is happening, or how they think things could be improved, to try to understand any root causes that might not be apparent. If needed, provide a remediation or improvement outline of the steps that must be addressed for the person to be back on track. Make it clear that things must be improved or additional actions might be needed. 

Schedule a follow-up meeting.

Before you wrap up the conversation, after you’ve provided the outline of what needs to be done, talk about meeting again in a certain amount of time you both think is reasonable for a change to be noticed. Whether that’s a week, a month, etc., that might depend on the person and the situation. Let them know you’re available to provide help, feedback, additional guidance, or whatever they need to ensure they’re improving, but a complete evaluation will occur later. This way, your employee will know what they need to focus on and will have a fair amount of time to make those adjustments to show they’re serious about keeping their position. 

End the meeting on a positive note.

You don’t need to promise sunshine and roses, but remind the employee that they were hired here, to be part of this team, because they’re competent and capable. Remind them that they are valued and that this is an opportunity to learn and grow and remain an essential part of the team. Let them know you’re having this conversation because you don’t want to lose them or see them slip further off track. Ideally, the employee will feel a little nervous or embarrassed, but with the overall sense that this is salvageable. And they’ll know how to go about fixing things. 

Some employees will take difficult conversations better than others, of course. By preparing with specific, detailed notes about the issue at hand, you’ll have evidence of the issue in case an argumentative employee decides to deny things. As a manager, your job is to lead, coach, and foster your employees’ ability to do their job to the best of their ability. If someone’s not doing that, it’s time to make a change. 

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