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How do you feel about initiating difficult conversations? I personally don’t mind conflict if it’s healthy, safe and if it results in positive change.  Many people however like to avoid conflict so will often be fearful at the prospect of having “the talk” with employees or colleagues about productivity or workplace related issues.  It is natural because we are concerned that it could potentially worsen the situation or possibly hurt someone’s feelings.

A real sense of dread, procrastination and even butterflies in the stomach are common physical manifestations when you know you have no choice but to address that “elephant in the room” because its having untold impact on you, the work environment, your colleagues, the team and the business as a whole.

If it’s any consolation, Albert Einstein quoted – “In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity”. Difficult conversations are absolutely the opportunity for you to take positive action by addressing issues as they arise.  This is far more beneficial than pretending it doesn’t exist and having conflict escalate.  Escalation will only result in even more difficult conversations and possibly more emotive or volatile ones at that!

Fears of unfair dismissal claims, can lead to some Employers and Managers feeling they can’t even discuss performance issues with their employees.  However this could not be further from the truth.  You can be reassured that you are well within your rights to manage your staff and deal with instances of performance and workplace attitude or relationship issues provided this is done in a reasonable way as part of traditional fair management process.

Lying at the core to escalating conflicts in the workplace is often the quality of communication. Everyone is fundamentally different in how we perceive things and this is the basis for how we see the world and it is essentially these differences that guide how we communicate with other people. Our body language, the tone we use, the language we choose to use whether that be negative or judgemental has an immediate impact on the direction of the conversation.

Having that conversation need not be all bad or painful if you prepare yourself well ahead of the meeting.  Sometimes taking proactive action to simply listen and acknowledge issues or concerns and the importance of addressing them is often enough to give employees a sense of being respected and in turn a willingness on their part to work collaboratively with you to resolve any issues.

Here are some other tips and things you can do:

  • Be clear about the issue(s) at hand. Get to know the history and the origins of the problem or conflict and what has happened to date, (be careful of getting caught up in he said she said). List out what you want to achieve by having the conversation and stay focused on the objective.
  • Be direct and to the point. Open the discussion with the purpose of the meeting or discussion and making aware the issues to be discussed. Prolonging the agony by beating around the bush, only adds to the angst. The best way to address it is to be honest and authentic – but in a manner that is firm, polite and focussed.
  • Be fair, be objective, be consistent. Keep an open mind and resist the urge to judge, critise or go straight into resolution mode. Highly charged emotions can give way to assumptions and stirring of unrelated issues – steer it back to the focal point of the meeting. Where you are getting push back, let them know that such unprofessionalism is not helpful. Empathise if tears are shed but don’t let it detract from the purpose. We all need to express our emotions somehow and sometimes tears are how we do this.
  • Mean what you say and say what you mean. If you’re insincere and inconsistent in your words and actions, the other party will not take you seriously and will be confused by your message.
  • Leave with a list of action items. Welcome any suggestions from the person involved as to how things can be improved in their view allowing them to be part of formulating a solution. Taking ownership and responsibility is not only a sign of professional and personal maturity, but also a great step forward in manifesting the change or changes needed.
  • Follow Up. At the end of it all, calm and quietly spoken but deliberate words have a far greater effect in what may otherwise be an explosive affair – yes, I will concede that sometimes tempers and aggression are present but if you keep a cool head, you’re taking reasonable management action in a reasonable way and importantly maintaining professionalism. Always follow up on agreed actions whether they are scheduled follow up meetings, checking in on how tasks are to be performed or agreed changes in attitude or productivity.

ACTION ITEM: If you feel you have issue(s) in your business that requires resolution, chart steps to address the issue(s) as above. Contact Michalle Faulkner on (07) 5443 6022 for a consultation if you need further assistance.

Workplace conflict is costly because it leads to decreased employee engagement, absenteeism and staff turnover to name just a few. In fact, not addressing broken relationships, poor performance and other work related issues costs the Australian economy  some half a billion dollars in work-related mental health claims as well as $33bn in absenteeism.


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