Conducting difficult conversations about staff performance

Stacey Mead
HR Director | The HR Dept (Bristol) Ltd
7th March 2024

Love it or loathe it (and a majority surely loathe it), one of the duties of being a leader or manager is having to hold difficult conversations with staff, potentially on a regular basis.

There is the concern about how your employee will react; the time it takes to prepare, carry out and follow up on the conversations; and not to mention the feeling of your energy being sapped when you would rather be working on something more positive.

Tips for handling difficult conversations well

How do you get on with difficult conversations? If they are taking a toll, help is at hand! We have some tried and tested techniques and helpful considerations for you.

Fostering trust – Being adept at handling difficult conversations well really starts long before such encounters arise. If you spend time nurturing a supportive culture and building trust with your team, it will have a number of benefits: loyalty, productivity, creativity and happiness. It will also help with difficult conversations, with an employee able to behave more openly, and fear the conversation less themselves.

Timing – If there is an issue, do not wait for the formal appraisal. The status quo may be damaging productivity or morale, or matters could deteriorate further. Deal with it promptly for an efficient resolution.

Prepare – Make sure you go into the conversation prepared. Do you have enough time allocated to cover everything? All the evidence you need? For performance or behavioural issues a useful format is to outline the situation you are not happy about, discuss how they performed or behaved and then how you expect them to perform/behave in the future.

Where – You need to be in a private space where others cannot hear or see what is happening.

Actively listen – Listen to their responses with an open mind. Like all meetings you should make notes of the key points discussed.

Consider communication style – Everyone’s different and each has their own communication style – straight talking or more subtle, emotion or facts and figures. Consider your own style and also theirs, and how you can manage the conversation to best get your desired outcome.

The praise sandwich – Okay, you may know this by a coarser, more alliterative name, but the praise sandwich is a technique for delivering criticism. Rather than going straight for the negative, sandwich it between two more positive observations to both ease them into it and leave them feeling more positive afterwards. This may not be appropriate for behavioural issues, but can be a helpful approach for good team members who are falling down in one aspect of their job. However, it can weaken the message.

React to events – If it is going badly, maybe more information is required or emotions have bubbled over, hit pause. Give yourselves time to reset, or gather further information, and reschedule for a concluding talk.

Don’t forget the follow up – A difficult conversation will often need a written follow-up confirming what was said and agreed, along with any next steps that may need to be taken. This will help reinforce whatever messaging you needed to convey, as well as act as evidence should matters escalate in the future.

Get the right structure in place with The HR Dept

While some difficult conversations will be ad hoc, many will arise during more formal appraisals. We can help you by designing a structured appraisal system that will help you deliver effective conversations, whether good or bad. We can also provide manager training in how to conduct appraisals and reviews. To find out more, please get in touch.

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