Difficult discussions

Sure, managers have to have them all the time, but no one actually likes them. Read on to find out how to have those tough chats with your employees.

While few things are more rewarding for managers than spreading good news and positive feedback at the office, not every day will be sunshine and rainbows at work. And while no one truly wants to engage in difficult discourse (it’s the tough conversations managers are forced to have with their employees that keep them up at night), distressing, negative and challenging talks are bound to happen — it’s part of the gig. “Difficult discussions are inevitable. Managing such discussions well is critical to building and maintaining mutual respect, trust, loyalty and positive effect,” says Rick Hackett, professor and Canada Research Chair of organizational behaviour and human performance at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. The thing is, most managers aren’t prepared to have these chats. “We are not always naturally equipped to deal with some of these discussions,” says Tracey Gurton, who teaches at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Adds Michael Daniels, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at the Sauder School of Business: “Often these negative conversations are needed to engender shared understanding during uncertain and confusing times, to change unproductive and toxic behaviours or reduce conflict in organizations.”

So what’s the best way to handle challenging chats? We asked five experts to talk us through three scenarios managers might face — letting an employee go, the death of a colleague and a performance issue — to find the best way to deal with each situation. Here’s their advice.

#1: Jack has to let someone on his team go. He’s not sure how to break the news — Bob has been with the company for some time, has a good rapport with Jack and doesn’t see this downsizing coming.

“This is a tough situation,” says Ann Peng, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ont. “Before the conversation, the manager may talk with senior management to make sure he understands the reasons behind the decision and the possible compensations and support the company would provide to this employee.” Besides conveying the news in a professional manner, Peng says it’s important for Jack to show “sincere sympathy for the employee’s situation and to acknowledge his contributions to the department.” Jack should also observe Bob’s reactions and ask any necessary questions. “It’s important to understand that with extreme negative emotions, he may not be able to catch all the details. So make sure you have the important things delivered and received by the employee.”

#2: Mary finds out Dave has been killed in a car accident over the weekend. It’s Monday morning and Dave’s colleagues are trickling in. She doesn’t know how to deliver this sad news.

“In cases like this, emotions are likely to run very high. It’s important for the leader to provide all available information to everyone at the same time and in person to stop rumours and misinformation from spreading,” says Daniels. He says this conversation should be done first thing in the morning, and once the news is out, employees should know where to get counselling from a trained professional (ideally one who’s hired by the company). “Then it’s important for the leader to step back and act as a resource for employees if needed.” Mary should be prepared for her team members to process this news in different ways — “some may need to take time alone and others will want to utilize the social support network they have at work,” he says. Mary must facilitate these coping approaches and allow Dave’s colleagues to take time to process and grieve. “It is OK for leaders to express some genuine emotion to validate those felt by employees,” adds Daniels. “According to social learning theory, employees are likely to mimic and learn from the behaviours of those with higher status in the organization. So expressing emotion shows employees that it is OK to feel these emotions and that expressing them is a part of the healing process.”

Mary can show empathy, but she shouldn’t attempt to counsel employees on her own — it’s unlikely she is trained to provide guidance to colleagues who are grieving the death of a coworker. “Instead, the organization should make a trained counsellor or mental health professional available for employees and offer them time and space to process the information however they choose.”

#3: Karen has noticed that Janet’s work has been less than stellar lately, she’s been handing in projects late, hasn’t been collaborative with the team, isn’t wowing clients and seems uninterested in work. Karen is stressed and needs to discuss Janet’s performance. She isn’t sure how to approach the issue.

Poor employee performance is a serious stressor for managers. Karen should approach the situation in a way that minimizes the “likely defensiveness on the part of the employee,” says Pat Sniderman, professor of human resources management and organizational behaviour at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. She should keep in mind that the “goal of the meeting is to improve performance and not punish. This is easier said than done.” Start by identifying the specific behaviours that are causing concern. “This means defining what Karen means by ‘less than stellar behaviour,’ i.e., which projects were handed in late, how late and when? The guideline here is to be specific, not global. Be descriptive and evaluative and focus on the observed problem or behaviour rather than the person or their characteristics,” she says.

Sniderman suggests using the XYZ model in this scenario. It goes like this: “When you handed in the reconciliation report two days late last week (X is the behaviour), I looked bad at the executive meeting (Y is the consequence) and it was very embarrassing (Z is your reaction).” When having this conversation, it’s key for Karen to give Janet her undivided attention (turn off that cell and maintain eye contact), listen attentively and ask for her opinions. “For example, ‘When you handed in the reconciliation report two days late last week, I looked bad at the executive meeting and it was very embarrassing. Can you tell me more about the circumstances that caused it to be late?’ Express your feelings clearly but in a way that does not devalue the employee.”

Gurton, on the other hand, is a fan of the SAIL model — situation, action, impact and link. It works like this. Let’s say Janet is late handing in a request for proposal (RFP) for a potential client. This is the situation: “The RFP for our prospective customer was due to Ken by Tuesday at noon so he could add the technical data in time to get it to the customer. Here’s the action: “Your portion of the RFP didn’t get to Ken until 4 p.m. Wednesday.” The fallout is the impact: “When he did finally receive the document, your part was incomplete, so he had to finish that as well as add his own piece. The prospect called me 10 minutes before deadline wondering where our offer was.” And finally, says Gurton, the link connects the action and outcome back to organization-level factors: “Integrity is one of our core values. You let your coworkers down and we almost lost the chance to work with a fantastic client.”

Whichever route you choose, the conversation should always end in mutual respect, says Hackett. “I use a sandwich analogy in describing how a performance management discussion should be conducted. Start with positives (acknowledging past contribution), then move to sharing performance concerns, then end positively with acknowledgement of contributions, a commitment to provide assistance in helping the employee to improve performance, and mutual agreement on actions to be taken to enhance performance, objective indicators of performance improvement, timelines, accountabilities and followup.”