Help Managers Manage Tough Talks

Better out (constructively) than in.

Uncomfortable conversations about attitude, performance and relationships are tough. Played out on reality TV where the actors are, in a sense, colleagues, these conversations can be as small as snippy exchanges in a party van. Or, things escalate to a physical fight with lots of broken champagne flutes. In the real business workplace, in addition to gossip and even resentment, there’s a bottom-line impact when these important confrontational discussions aren’t handled well — or at all.

According to VitalSmarts, a training and organizational development company, employees waste an average of $1,500 and eight hours of work for every crucial conversation avoided. “For any organization to perform optimally, there needs to be timely and helpful conversations with people who are not performing at the right levels,” said leadership coach and psychologist John Townsend. But organizational performance will stay in the weeds if leaders don’t effectively broach sensitive-but-necessary conversations around topics like reaching quotas, having a low-energy attitude or alienating teammates.

Unfortunately, having these confrontations is a challenge for many businesses for two reasons, said Townsend, founder of Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling at Concordia University Irvine. People are either conflict avoidant — they want to bypass the possibility of discomfort or prefer to keep quiet about worker issues, and as a result they inadvertently feed the problem with neglect — or they come on uncaring and too strong, leaving employees shell-shocked and nervous about the next time their boss is going to explode.

It comes down to people just not getting these skills growing up, Townsend said. “They didn’t see it modeled around the dinner table on Sunday night. They didn’t see how conflict and solving problems went well — it sometimes went poorly.”

The convenience of digital technology isn’t helping either. Try to solve a problem via email or text message, and the sender may miss opportunities to gauge the recipient’s response. Emails and texts are convenient and easy, but attempts to problem solve through these modes of communication “always backfire,” said Townsend, who laid out eight steps people leaders can employ to navigate confrontational conversations with employees.

  1. Start on a positive note. “Hey Sam, we’re going to have a difficult conversation, but I first want to let you know I really want you to win, and I know you can handle this.”

Here the manager has the employee’s attention and has framed the talk in the bigger picture — the leader’s desire for their employee’s success.

  1. State the problem clearly with specific examples. “I’ve watched you in team meetings where you sort of check out when other people have an opinion; you look kind of bored, like their opinion doesn’t matter. I saw it happen on April 3rd at the 3 o’clock meeting, it also happened on April 17th at the 4 o’clock meeting, then I saw it again on May 14th at the 2 o’clock meeting.”

As opposed to vaguely telling the employee they’re bugging their coworkers and need to fix their attitude, they can’t argue with whether that problem is an opinion or a matter of perception when the leader has facts on their side.

  1. Own your part. “As I looked at this situation Sam, I’m realizing I wasn’t clear with you. No wonder you’re not performing — I haven’t been clear.” Or, “I didn’t resource you, and I threw you out there with way too many things to do.” Or, “This was a little problem, and I avoided it, and now it’s a big problem; I should have nipped it in the bud sooner.”

Townsend said in his work, about 98 percent of the time the leader has some culpability. It’s never 100 percent on the individual. Owning one’s part elevates the conversation between the manager and employee. “Now the person realizes it’s not the parent yelling at the child anymore. It’s the equal saying I’m part of this, too. I don’t want to make anybody the good guy or the bad guy, I just want to solve the problem.”

  1. State what you want to see happen. “I’d like you to read this book on positive relationships and teams, and then I’ll ask you how it went and what you thought about it. Then the next four team meetings, I’m just going to observe you more than I observe anybody else to see if you are collaborating, if you are engaging, if you’re listening to other people, if you’re validating other people’s points of view even if you kind of disagree with them. I’ll be watching you then giving you some coaching after the meeting. I’ll do this probably for the next month or two, then if it goes well, great.”

In this scenario, leaders not only present a specific solution to the problem, they show the employee they’re engaged, and the employee has something to do.

  1. Ask for their point of view. “I’ve told you a lot of stuff about all this, Sam. Tell me your point of view.”

Here’s an opportunity for the employee to agree with the problem that’s been identified and talk about what they think has caused it. The employee might give the manager some insight about a cause that’s completely new to the conversation. For example, “I’m having a problem with my energy. I’m just kind of checked out, or, I don’t like working in this division.” Essentially, the manager gets data points that will further advance the conversation toward an even better solution.

  1. Explore the consequences. Hopefully, most people get it the first time. But there are some people who are hard headed, and they don’t want to change, Townsend said. Acknowledging that the issue has been brought up a number of times, the manager can bring in HR to support this feedback effort with related protocol.
  2. End on a positive note. “This was a hard talk, and I’m glad you stuck through it. I don’t think it was easy for you. I really want you to win. You’re a great member of the team; I think you can do this.”
  3. Follow-up on the intervention. Townsend said managers should give their employee some time to reflect on the conversation — between two and 24 hours. At some point thereafter, the manager should call the worker or go by their desk, and take a pulse of how the talk went: “I want to check in on that conversation. How are you with that?”

Some employees will say they understood it and are making plans to address the issue. Others may not understand, may need more information, or may be resentful and feel attacked. In that last case, “you have to reinforce: ‘No, I don’t feel like that at all, I really want you to win. It’s just this was an important area for you,’ ” Townsend said. Doing this can help to modulate the employee’s internal world.

Companies risk leaving money on the table when well-done confrontations aren’t happening, he said. Everyone suffers. Alignment is lost. On the other hand, in healthy organizations that support this type of engagement, everyone is on the same page working toward the same mission, and putting their time and energy toward the company being successful in a focused way.

“If you never solve these problems, people become fragmented, they become polarized, they lose team work ethic, and problems like that begin to seep into how everything works,” Townsend said. “It’s sort of like putting a pebble in the wheels of a machine, the machine starts to stop.”

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, email