Having a conversation when things aren’t going well is one of the most difficult things a manager has to do. It’s not the conversation itself that is necessarily difficult. It’s everything that surrounds that conversation.

The fear of getting it wrong. The expectations of how the employee will respond. The discomfort of putting yourself in an uncomfortable space.

Like everything else these discussions are a learned skill. The more we practice, the less uncomfortable it feels. I encourage new managers and HR Business Partners to use a range of strategies when they first start having these conversations.

Map it out

Answer the who, what, when, where, how and why. Actually write it down. Be clear about the information you have and the assumptions you are making. Set the assumptions to one side and be careful not to treat them as fact. Highlight the gaps. What don’t you know? These are the questions you need to ask to understand what is happening.

Stop. Reflect

Is a formal process needed right now? The aim of the discussion is to get the employee back on track. Going in too early with a formal discussion can seriously damage a manager’s relationship with an employee. Ask yourself. Is a pattern of behaviour evident? Is this behaviour unusual for this person? Is it what you expect to see from them?

If the answer to those questions is ‘no’ my advice is usually to have a conversation to find out what is going on. It’s more along the lines of, “we’ve noticed this, is everything ok?” Remember, employees are human. Crazy, I know. In reality, if things are going on personally or professionally you can’t expect employees to leave their problems at the door. Because humans don’t do that. Even when you ask them to.

Have I had this conversation before?

On one side of the coin we have the manager with a tendency to turn everything into a formal meeting. On the other side we have the manager who does everything informally and doesn’t move to the next level when they should. If you’ve had the conversation, once, perhaps twice, certainly no more than three times and you’re still seeing an issue it’s time to change strategy. Something is not working. It might be time to formalise it, or there might be a more fundamental problems in the systems and processes, the way the team works, that is causing the problem. Is it the person or the environment?

This might take a newbie 10 or even 20 minutes. It’s worth it. These days for me this is less than 30 seconds of processing in my head.

Now you’ve got a strategy its time to have the conversation. More on that next time!

What’s your advice for new managers and business partners having difficult conversations? What are your top tips?

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