Leading through difficult conversations: 6 steps to better outcomes

One of the greatest challenges for many leaders is having difficult conversations with employees. Maybe there’s a problem with their performance, or perhaps there’s discord with the team.

Whatever the issue, it can be tempting for managers to look the other way. Handling a tough situation with employees is rarely easy.

But the worst thing you can do is avoid these conversations. The more time passes, the more negative the impact can be on your company’s culture, environment and productivity.

Here are six steps you can take to help foster positive employee outcomes through difficult conversations:

1. Be prepared

Preparation is key for success with any meeting, and that holds especially true when an employee’s behavior or performance is in question.

Base the conversation on real examples to support your observations. This allows you to coach your direct reports and provide them what they need to grow and succeed.

You should outline expectations and help them understand where they need to improve. Fact-based evidence minimizes misunderstandings. That’s why documenting conflicts or performance issues is vital. It’s also important to have policies in place to help enforce rules and guidelines.

Business leaders have a responsibility to help employees resolve challenges and conflict. Doing so is not only good for the team – it can also help reduce liability for your company and management.

2. Choose the right environment

Where you meet is almost as important as how you meet.

For most conversations, your office or a conference room will work fine. Offsite locations may also be an option for general dialogue and can help employees feel more comfortable. However, be mindful that having serious discussions about performance or behavior over a cup of coffee may not be appropriate. Make sure to choose a location that aligns with the nature of the conversation.

3. Prioritize consistency and confidentiality

Hold everyone on your team (including yourself) accountable to the same standards – period.

You’ll need to determine what actually took place. Refer to first-hand accounts, employee complaints and fact-based details you’ve documented to gain perspective. And remember, there’s always more than one side to every story.

Let employees know you’ve received feedback about them that you’d like to share. Keep details general to protect those involved. Cover the same talking points with all underperforming employees so that it doesn’t seem like you’re singling out any one person or group.

Be judicious about who you involve, and keep the conversation confidential to the extent possible. However, be clear with employees that you can’t guarantee complete confidentiality, particularly if something they share with you requires additional action or conversations with others.

A good rule of thumb? If the situation isn’t relevant to an employee, they probably shouldn’t be made aware of it.


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4. Include a witness if appropriate

For serious things like policy violations, behavioral issues or anything that may require disciplinary action, it’s a good idea to have a witness at the meeting.

Your HR specialist is typically the best choice. If they’re not available, consider including another manager. Never include an employee who isn’t involved as your third-party witness. Be sure to brief the person on the situation, and be clear about roles and responsibilities before you meet.

5. Temper emotions, stay positive and stick to facts

Managers may be hesitant to have tough conversations with employees because they’re worried that the employee will get upset. That’s a legitimate concern – no one enjoys hearing that they’re missing the mark.

But you can help ease any tension by staying positive and avoiding emotionally driven language. The conversation should be an open dialogue that focuses on facts, not feelings.

Give examples of where they fall short and how they can improve – and then equip them with the tools and resources necessary to get there. This helps maintain a positive tone and gives employees a better understanding of how their actions impact others and the company as a whole.

Make sure to end the meeting on a positive note. You want employees to come out of it accountable, committed and motivated to do better. And remember, if emotions do get out of hand, it may be best to pause and reschedule the meeting.

6. Follow up

The initial conversation shouldn’t be the end of it. Follow up with informal check-ins to see how employees are progressing and reiterate your support. You can also make it part of your ongoing one-on-one meetings.

Most of all, be authentic and show a genuine commitment to them that goes beyond resolution of the original issue.

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