How to make difficult conversations easier

Poor performance can often be traced back to unclear expectations

4 minutes read

Sooner or later, every employer needs to have a difficult conversation with an employee—about performance or workplace behaviour. The prospect of that kind of conversation can keep a lot of entrepreneurs up at night.

The good news, according to BDC Business Advisor and talent management specialist Ewa Okon, is that there are some simple ways to make those conversations easier and more productive—and big benefits to doing so.

First, act quickly and be clear, Okon says.

“When an employee fails to hit their targets or behaves in unacceptable ways, it can be tempting to ignore the issue and hope it improves on its own,” she says. “But it’s critical to address it as soon as possible.”

Letting an issue slide can have an impact on the rest of your business, especially if it’s a small company where every employee has a visible effect on productivity and other people’s morale. Okon notes that not addressing an issue can even be detrimental to the employee involved because they don’t have the chance to learn and grow.

Best practices for hard conversations

How can you handle the situation in a way that leaves everyone involved feeling heard, understood and appreciated? Okon offers the following advice:

1. Be clear about the purpose of the conversation

An employee should never be blindsided by corrective feedback. When you schedule your meeting, let them know what it’s about so they know what to expect.

2. Explain why it matters

“People perform better when they understand why their actions matter and how they contribute to the business,” says Okon. Instead of just asking an employee to do something differently, make sure they understand why you’re asking.

3. Listen as much as you talk

Have difficult conversations in person, face to face, at a time when you can fully devote your attention to the employee involved. That way you can have a true two-way conversation: Your employee will have the chance to voice any concerns and help you understand their perspective. You might learn they don’t have the resources they need to do their job properly, or they didn’t understand the impacts of what they said or did.

4. Make sure corrective conversations aren’t the only ones you have

Connect with employees regularly and give positive feedback when they’re doing well. The more often you talk to your team, the better you’ll understand what they need to succeed. Build trust so they’ll feel comfortable coming to you if something’s not going well—before it affects their performance. With stronger rapport and more open communication, when you do have to deliver corrective feedback, it will likely be better received.

5. Establish what happens next

“It’s not really helpful to simply tell someone what they did wrong,” says Okon. Instead, focus on how they can improve. Offer positive ideas to resolve the situation and clarify what you expect going forward. Before you leave your meeting, establish an action plan so you and your employee both know what should happen next. “It doesn’t have to be complex or even necessarily written down,” notes Okon. “Just a few items you both agree to as a path forward.”

Clarity counts

Poor performance and behaviour can often be traced back to unclear expectations, lack of training and other addressable issues. Since most employees want to contribute and succeed, removing barriers and clarifying expectations can help prevent situations that require difficult conversations from arising in the first place.

Okon advises creating job profiles to define each person’s role, drafting explicit policies on employee behaviour and developing a structured performance management system.

People perform better when they understand why their actions matter and how they contribute to the business.

Based on your conversations, do what you can to set your employees up for success. Make sure they have the equipment, training, understanding, time and other resources to do their jobs well.