19th May 2017

It is good to talk: so why do managers often avoid difficult conversations?

At a glance

A manager’s ability and willingness to tackle difficult conversations is crucial to maintaining good staff engagement, productivity and performance. Tony Hyams-Parish, Partner and Head of Employment at RB, considers why managers tend to avoid difficult conversations and provides some guidance on how to make such conversations easier to deal with.

Picture the scene: colleagues have commented that the receptionist’s appearance is inappropriate. Not enough buttons are done up on her shirt; her skirt is very short; and she tends to smell of body odour towards the end of the day. What does her manager do in this situation?

A: Have a quiet word?

B: Tell HR to have a quiet word?

C: Send her an email?

D: Do nothing

Often managers choose to take any option but have the conversation themselves. The tale about a manager emailing a team member who is sitting next to, or opposite him/her, is all too common. There may be various reasons for this: they might consider it too difficult a subject to tackle; they might be embarrassed; or they may be worried about possible legal claims if the conversation does not go to plan.

Whatever the reluctance to have them, difficult conversations are a fact of life in any workplace, whether they involve a manager delivering difficult feedback, communicating change or discussing behavioural issues, or more everyday problems such as disagreeing with a superior, responding to bad behaviour or dealing with those coming into work late.

It is the job of managers to be responsible and accountable to their direct reports and own line managers, regardless of how difficult the conversations. Developing managers so that they are able to tackle these issues head on is essential if businesses want to maintain employee engagement, productivity and performance.

Yet, when managers do have difficult conversations, they are often mishandled, creating difficult situations that can easily escalate into grievances. Interestingly, recent studies have found that managers rate their confidence in dealing with difficult conversations more highly than it is perceived by others. In one study, when asked to rate their own confidence in dealing with difficult conversations with their reports, over two thirds of managers rated themselves as either extremely or very confident. However, when the same question was put to HR managers, only one in five felt that managers in their organisation were either extremely confident or very confident in addressing difficult conversations and almost half felt that managers were either extremely or very unconfident.

Furthermore, half of HR managers felt that difficult conversations are either frequently or often referred to HR when they could be effectively dealt with by the manager. Overall results suggested that sensitive conversations are often being delayed, risking a detrimental effect on staff morale.

So how can managers prepare for difficult conversations and increase the chances of them going well? Here are just some suggestions:

  1. Do your homework: Don’t over prepare but do think about the conversation before you go into it so that you know what you are going to say and how you will approach the difficult subject. Make some notes if necessary but avoid preparing a full script and certainly do not go into the meeting and read from your notes!
  2. Be positive: It is important to set a positive tone going into your meeting. If you have a negative approach, your employees are more likely to get defensive and argumentative.
  3. Leave your emotions at the door: These meetings can easily become emotionally-charged, so you should make a strong effort to keep your own feelings in check. Your meetings should always be fact-based.
  4. Find the right setting: By identifying the right setting, you are helping set the tone of the meeting. Depending on the situation, your office is usually an acceptable location for the conversation.
  5. Be consistent: Hold all your employees accountable to the same performance expectations. Have the same dialogue with anyone who is slipping. You don’t want to make it seem like you’re alienating or picking on a certain group or individual.
  6. Keep it confidential: You want to be as discrete as possible when addressing conflicts between employees. Any employees who aren’t involved shouldn’t be aware of the situation.
  7. Slow down and listen: Slowing the pace of the conversation and pausing before responding to the other person can give you a chance to find the right words and tends to defuse negative emotion from the employee. If you listen to what the other person is saying, you are more likely to address the right issues.
  8. Be ready to call the meeting to an end: It is rare for conversations like these to get out of hand. But if employees act rudely, begin swearing or displaying aggressive behaviours, then it is time to end the meeting and take some time out.

Training and practice is key to equipping managers with the skills to have difficult conversations confidently. Done well, the benefits for the business and the performance of employees will be clear to see.

The Employment Team at RB provides bespoke half-day in-house training sessions to managers, aimed at equipping them with the skills to have difficult conversations. These are very practical sessions, giving managers practice in having difficult conversations, using actors to play the part of employees.

If you would like to discuss what type of training we can provide to your managers or to arrange a training session, contact Tony Hyams-Parish or your usual contact in the Employment Team. You can contact Tony by email or you can telephone him on +44(0)1293 558544.

We will also be running a training session on how to approach difficult conversations on 6 June 2017 called “We need to talk”. Click her for more details and to book a place.

This document is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this document.

Get in touch with Tony Hyams-Parish