Good Leaders Have the Difficult Conversations

Talking to someone about their work performance or behavior is never easy, but it must be done.


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As a business owner or leader of an organization, few things are more difficult than having a conversation regarding work performance or behavior. We put this off for every reason imaginable. We want to avoid conflict, we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and like most people, we want to be liked. 

So, while this aspect of your job will never be painless or easy, there are a few things that you can come to understand, as well as a process you can follow, to make these talks go smoother and increase the chances of a positive outcome. Here are a few points to understand about tough talks:

  • It is your responsibility as an owner or leader to deal with these situations.
  • Poor performance or behavior rarely, if ever, corrects itself.
  • Your organization has certain expectations that need to be met regarding conduct, attendance and performance. These need to be made clear.
  • Most people want to do good work and be a contributing member of the team. We owe it to that individual, to ourselves and to the organization to try and help them.
  • One employee’s actions could affect the entire organization if left unaddressed. In most cases, this means it involves the morale and productivity of the entire team.
  • Following a system or process will allow you to develop a standard routine and take steps to deal with difficult employee situations. The benefits are numerous. You will gain confidence in what you are doing by having a predictable path to follow, and you will have all your facts and thoughts assembled ahead of time. Also, you will be able to improve the individual steps of this system based on your own experience of facing such situations.

Here is the format I use. It is simple and straightforward:

  • Step 1: Do your homework. Have a full understanding of the situation to be addressed. Is it about attendance, attitude, productivity or quality of work? You may need to talk to a few different individuals to get some of the facts or data you need. When listening to others, make sure to focus on the behavior, results or outcomes. Keep emotion or personal bias out of the picture.
  • Step 2: Schedule the discussion. Don’t avoid the situation. Engage the individual as soon as possible. Let that person know you’d like to meet and offer a few time/date options.   
  • Step 3: Prepare yourself mentally. Prior to the meeting, I spend 20 to 30 minutes alone to focus my thinking and put myself in a calm and relaxed state of mind.
  • Step 4: Let the individual know you want to share some concerns and that you would like their feedback regarding the situation as well.
  • Step 5: State your concerns in a conversational manner as well as the performance expectation this individual needs to meet.
  • Step 6: Let the individual express their viewpoint on the matter. Don’t interrupt. Let the individual talk until everything is off his or her chest. The individual may even get emotional; it’s ok. Just make sure you stay calm and in control of the situation.
  • Step 7: Acknowledge and thank the individual for their viewpoint. At this time, you should once again make sure he or she understands and agrees to meet the expectations you just discussed.

Because each situation and individual is different, a perfect outcome can never be guaranteed. However, with understanding and proper planning, you can increase your odds of success. This will benefit everyone involved.    


About the Contributor

Tom Marini

Tom Marini

Founded in 1952 as a small machine shop, Marini Manufacturing has grown into a modern provider of precision-machined components and assemblies. Email tmarini@marinimfg.com or visit marinimfg.com.