Difficult conversations at work are an inevitable part of life. They are often something we put off too. But that’s a mistake. When difficult conversations need to happen, they should happen. Let’s look at why they matter and how to have them effectively.

We all want to be part of a positive workplace culture. And constant drama or frequent professional (or personal) disagreements can be a huge red flag. But, even in the world’s most utopian workplace, difficult conversations at work are unavoidable.

So, why do many try avoiding them, and how can we be better.

What do difficult work conversations look like?

If “difficult conversation” sounds broad, that’s because it is. These issues can run the gamut from “You took my sandwich out of the office fridge” to “We’ve found your conduct to be criminally negligent and must immediately terminate your employment” – hopefully that last one is a rarity in your organisation!

But that’s where the generalization ends.

It’s important to tune your approach to the problem at hand. It’s hard to briefly encapsulate every possible argument or elephant in the room you might have. They’re a necessary part of any effective feedback process.

Here are some of the difficult conversations at work that often need to happen:

Performance conversations

Conversations around performance are arguably some of the most important you’ll have. And, depending on your work culture, they’re also some of the most common. They range from full-blown performance reviews and ongoing feedback to progress updates and impromptu praise.

Without these conversations, your employees lack a frame of reference for their efforts. And that can be a recipe for disengagement by itself. Your people need ongoing feedback to aid their professional development.

Addressing attitude problems

Raw output isn’t the only metric to gauge your employees by. There’s also their disposition to think about. An employee can be perfectly productive and still cause problems due to a bad attitude. In fact, some of the most difficult conversations at work are when you must call out a top performer for problematic conduct. Examples of workplace attitude problems include:

  • Dragging down others with constant complaining.
  • Always shifting the blame for mistakes or failures.
  • Being disrespectful to colleagues.

What makes these conversations so difficult is that you need to arrive at a shared understanding with the employee. You can’t expect someone to change their attitude if they can’t even admit it’s a problem.

Delivering bad news

No matter what your role is in an organisation, chances are that, at some point, you’ll have to deliver bad news to someone. You could be a manager letting someone go or declining to promote them. Or you could be an employee anxiously waiting to tell your boss you didn’t make your targets this week. These things can be awkward and nerve-wracking. But nobody can respond to an issue if you keep them in a state of ignorance.

Mediating conflict between employees

A big part of the recruitment process for any role is finding someone who’s a good fit for your work culture. But disagreements between colleagues aren’t a question of “If.” They’re a question of “How often.”

When arguing employees can’t resolve something between themselves, it’s down to management and HR to step in. In these situations, it’s vital you check your favoritism at the door and be as transparent as possible.

People tend to avoid addressing “scary” topics

It would be one thing if these issues were always addressed in a timely way. And it’s easy to assume that employees should be willing to talk. But the fact is, people tend to be avoidant when it comes to conversations, they’re anxious about.

A VitalSmarts poll led by author Joseph Grenny, and master trainer Justin Hale, surveyed over 500 employees. They found that more than 8 in 10 were putting off at least one “scary” but important conversation at work. A quarter admitted to putting it off for six months. And one tenth admitted to delaying for a year, while another tenth reported two years.

These findings are alarming. Especially when you consider that these conversations were most commonly performance related. However, broken promises and general obnoxiousness were also high on the list. Employees reported going to various lengths to avoid difficult conversations at work:

  • 50% reported avoiding the other person at all costs.
  • 37% danced around the issue when talking to the other person.
  • 37% considered quitting or changing jobs.
  • 11% did quit.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s just employees being difficult. Most commonly, employees reported fearing the consequences of speaking up. But others reported a lack of faith in the work culture, while others felt they lacked the skills or ability to speak out.

What about managers?

So, we know employees are avoiding their issues, but what about their bosses?

Well… there’s bad news, and then potentially optimistic news. In 2016, an employee survey by Harris Poll found that 69% of managers reported being uncomfortable communicating with employees. 37% reported an aversion to giving feedback if they thought the employee might react negatively. Their struggles even went beyond “difficult conversations” as we define them.

Other things they struggled with included recognizing achievements and crediting good ideas. Some were even uncomfortable with giving clear directions or having face-to-face conversations. That’s grim. So, what’s the good news?

Well, the good news is that managers seem to have gotten better at communicating post-COVID. 38% of employees state their manager engages and communicates with them more since before the Pandemic. That’s according to Gallagher’s State of the Sector 2022 report.

Why you shouldn’t avoid difficult conversations at work

So, if it wasn’t already clear, you’ve got plenty of reasons to tackle those difficult conversations at work you’ve been avoiding:

The benefits of having difficult conversations at work

It can be hard to build up to those difficult conversations at work. It can feel like the potential benefits are outweighed by the fallout. But, if you have even a half-decent workplace culture, that’s not true. For managers, the benefits include:

  • Elevating their team’s productivity by eliminating blockers.
  • Handling these conversations well builds trust with employees.
  • You prevent social conflict from escalating.

Of course, managers aren’t the only ones who end up in these situations. Difficult conversations can be nerve-wracking for employees, especially when the person they need to confront is their boss. But the benefits of pushing through include:

  • Giving yourself a voice in the organisation.
  • Safeguarding your own wellbeing by raising issues.
  • You may benefit others by improving workplace culture.
  • Highlighting issues can show initiative.

The consequences of avoiding difficult conversations

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about the benefits. But what you really need to be aware of are the consequences of avoiding these problems for too long. Don’t forget that most of these conversations center on performance. So, every day those conversations don’t happen is another day those employees are effectively disengaged.

In 2020, Gallup calculated the cost of this using the example of a company of 10,000 employees making an average of $50,000. For a company of that size, employee disengagement cost $60.3 million annually.

But that’s just the cost of disengagement. Let’s not forget the 11% of avoidant employees who would outright quit their job to escape a difficult conversation. Few things can burn through a company’s annual budget quite like unexpected turnover.

The simple approach to difficult conversations at work

So, enough doom and gloom. Let’s get proactive and look at the best way to approach having these difficult workplace conversations.

Flag your talking points in advance

It can be annoying when someone’s avoiding a vital conversation with you. But resist the urge to ambush them with it. People tend to get defensive when they’re backed into a corner, which isn’t the best way to have a productive discussion. It’s better to give them a heads-up before they’re sitting down for a one-to-one with you.

Fortunately, when it comes to manager-employee conversations, our employee check-in has you covered. It’s easy for either party to bring up issues they want to talk about. As a manager, you can even use our automated performance conversation templates to set an agenda for the discussion.

But what about during the conversation itself?

Facts are the way forward

One reason people can be reluctant to have difficult conversations at work is fear of tensions reaching boiling point. It’s important not to let emotions take over the discussion. The best way to do this, and to avoid misunderstandings, is to rely on facts. This is another area where the documentation side of our check-in can be helpful.

Case in point, employees can get defensive about their own performance. Having their goal-tracking reports on-hand means you can point unambiguously to dips in their productivity. And employees can benefit from it the same way. Each check-in question has a full answer history, and the ability to “pass up” your check-in update.

So, if a manager is giving an employee the run-around, that employee can go over their head. They can point out to their boss’s boss that they’ve been raising this issue for months and getting nowhere. Being able to provide evidence of your claims makes it much easier to hold people accountable.

Regular feedback exchanges build honesty

If you’re bad at communicating with your people, things won’t get better over-night. Chances are that your people don’t trust you and aren’t necessarily going to be honest when you ask them for feedback.

This is why regular, two-way feedback is key. It provides a space for people to voice their concerns. People may not open up to you about everything right away. But, when someone does raise an issue, you can earn their trust by taking it seriously. Just be sure to follow through with any solutions you promise, or you’ll do more harm to your relationship than good.

A shared understanding doesn’t have to mean agreement.

A common problem for people having difficult conversations at work is that they treat it like a battle. When both sides are essentially trying to win an argument, there’s little incentive to find common ground.

But there’s a difference between winning someone over and making them understand your point of view. Sometimes, the only way forward is to find a productive compromise. And, past a certain point, you’ve just got to sit down and talk about it. So, book that one-to-one and buckle up.

At the end of the day, these conversations are about relieving the tensions building in your workplace culture. Turnover and burnout from unresolved problems are things you can’t take back. So, take difficult conversations at work and nip them in the bud, for everyone’s sake.

Learn how a weekly employee check-in is the foundation of moving to more transparent feedback practices, the backbone of better workplace conversations.