A key communication strategy for delivering difficult news

Holding tough conversations with employees is a challenge at all levels of an organization. After all, who wants to address an issue that could lead to confrontation, drama, or resentment? Wouldn’t it be easier to sweep the matter under the rug and simply look the other way?

If you’ve ever experienced such feelings, you’re not alone. The path of least resistance is avoidance. But hoping the matter will somehow magically fix itself is often the approach of managers who tend to avoid conflict at any cost. Work with your managers to give them the feedback they need so they in turn can provide valuable input to their direct reports.

Not addressing problematic performance or conduct challenges often delays issues that rarely fix themselves. The right thing to do is address minor conflicts before they turn into full-blown crises. Bypassing the discomfort of an open discussion brings with it critical risks, including the employee’s continuing lack of awareness of how to improve. The organization faces challenges, too, such as failure to protect itself from potential legal challenges for not according workplace due process to workers.

The challenge, therefore, lies in making yourself more comfortable and self-confident in approaching team members with confrontational or negative feedback. How you address employees’ shortcomings makes a world of difference.

Couching your feedback in ways that serve the individual’s career and professional development interests is the healthiest place to start. Following are sample introductory approaches that may help you launch into a tougher conversation where you expect defensive responses:

HR Memos D

“Sara, they say the most important decisions in our careers are made when we’re not in the room. There’s something that I’ve noticed that may be missing awareness and could potentially hold you back in your career over time. Do I have your permission to share more details about what I’m seeing?”

“Jeremy, one of your clients, Amber Thomas, called me this afternoon to formally complain about your handling of her service request. I’ll provide you with additional details, but I realize there are two sides to every story. Let me know if you’d like to listen to what she shared with me first or tell me your side of the story before I share her details. Either way, we’ve got to figure out how to get her reengaged with us.”

“Leah, I want to discuss a perception problem that you may be having with other members of the team. It could potentially hold you back in terms of building stronger team relationships with your subordinates and peers. I want you to be fully aware of this so you can address it and determine how to handle something similar in the future. Remember that I must hold you accountable for your perception management, just like everyone else on the team.”

“Antone, I noticed that you’ve been making the same error in your work submissions. Allow me to sit down with you and show you what worked for me when I was in your role. I think it will help and make you feel more self-confident moving forward. Does that sound like a good idea?”

No matter what the issue, your approach to resolution constantly centers around the employee’s best interests, which should make you more comfortable and confident in your approach. There’s no need for judgment or reprimand—a simple conversation starter places you in the role of mentor and opens your conversation in a positive and constructive way. Your proactive involvement is more likely to be accepted and welcomed if the goal is to help your subordinate develop and improve over time.

Therefore, look for the career development link in all your communications with staff members, whether providing positive recognition or delivering what is known as “constructive confrontation.” You’ll likely experience an immediate turnaround in how employees receive your messages and assume partial responsibility for fixing the problem at hand. That’s a win-win approach to resolving performance or conduct challenges in a fair and caring, yet direct, way.