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The Secret to Hard Conversations With Staff

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It’s difficult to have conversations about sensitive subjects with employees. Whether you’re discussing a difference in values, an upsetting behavior pattern, or a work quality issue, it’s easy to get sidetracked by emotions or, worse, to put it off until a “better time.” I’ve found the policy of “frequency over intensity” to work well – keeping the lines of communication open in regard to job performance so that issues don’t build up to the point of explosion.

Get in the right mindset: Take a few minutes to get centered. Understand what you want to accomplish. This helps you gain perspective, and assists in viewing the confrontation as a positive conversation (rather than an attack) with the end goal of helping your employee find happiness in his or her career.

Let the employee talk: Give this person the time to explain his or herself. Consider, for example, an employee that is always late to work. Maybe there’s a medical issue or a schedule adjustment than can be made. Make your best attempt to understand the underlying issue instead of disciplining right off the bat. This can help determine the impact on the rest of the organization.

Be flexible: If you go into the meeting with a motive, your employee may not feel comfortable being open with you. Try and solve a problem rather than doling out punishment. If you approach the conversation with the mindset that you sincerely care about the person, it changes everything. 

Make expectations clear: Only when employees understand what’s needed can they know how to succeed – or when they are falling short. Your employees should be able to clearly articulate what your expectations, goals and processes are. Don’t be afraid to ask staffers if they understand and to repeat the goals in their own words if you think they are unsure.

Related: Difficult Conversations: What Not to Say

Stay focused: By keeping the conversation focused, you’re able to avoid going off on tangents – where there are problems, there will always be emotions. Make your points direct but thoughtful and keep the discussion on track. Take the emotion out of it, and make the conversation analytical.

Document the discussion: At City Wide, we have a program called People Analyzer – we evaluate employees on all of our nine company values, vital behaviors for each position, and the employee commitment statement. We rate them either red or green – green means the employee shares the vision of the company while red indicates a deviation from the policies, and anything that has a red mark is required to have three specific examples of why the supervisor gave the person a red mark. The employee is then given 7-30 days to evaluate the situation and demonstrate the change of behaviors to which we discussed and agreed.

Related: Reasons You Should Have Difficult Conversations

Follow up:  After establishing areas of improvement, follow up with the employee to share positive and constructive feedback on their implemented performance changes.

Difficult conversations are just that – difficult. But clear communication between employer and employee creates clear guidelines that can, in time, make these hard talks a little easier.