Delivering bad news to an employee can be one of the most difficult tasks any manager has under his or her work responsibilities, especially when the conversation centres around employee performance, lack of productivity, wrong-doing, etc. The conversations can often be personally taxing for managers.
Peter Bregman recently wrote an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review about how to start a conversation you’re dreading, and in it, he writes about a situation where he was avoiding a difficult conversation with an industry colleague. He describes how his attempt to avoid an uncomfortable situation initially, created an even more awkward conversation later.
A friend of mine told me recently that early on in her career she went for an interview and the HR manager stopped the process 7 minutes in and said, “I’m going to tell you right now, you don’t have the experience for this job.” However, the HR manager then said, “I’ve booked a half hour for this meeting, so you have me for another 23 minutes. Ask me any question you want about this industry, and I’ll answer it as best as I can.” My friend said those remaining 23 minutes were incredibly inspiring and motivating for her, and she took full advantage of the opportunity to get as much intel for her job search as she could. Ten years later, she still looks back at that HR manager fondly. There are great lessons to be learned in taking a negative conversation and turning it into a positive experience.
In the recruitment industry, I must often be the bearer of bad news to job candidates. For every person I call to deliver good news (to say that he or she got the job), I have a handful of others to whom I must deliver the opposite news.
Over the years, through my own experiences, and in learning from others, I’ve benefited from some great lessons on how to have difficult conversations with employees. Below are some of the most valuable tips I’ve come across that can help turn difficult situations into motivating opportunities:
Deal with the issue head-on in real-time
If an employee is underperforming or doing something incorrectly, identify the problem – as you see it happening, and discuss the issue in a respectful, but straight-forward manner. Then, collaborate on a positively-focused plan to rectify the issue. The sooner you address the issue, the more likely you are to minimize its severity.
Be direct and accurate in your messaging
It can be tempting to lighten the issue to soften the blow, or to position the issue in a different way from what is really happening. But this approach often only worsens a situation. Employees will appreciate your direct honesty and will feel like you are treating them with integrity, if you address an issue in a straightforward manner.
Ditch technology for a face-to-face conversation whenever possible
People feel more connected to each other when they are together. Shielding oneself behind the veil of an email for example can be seen as cowardly, even in today’s 24/7 wired world because it doesn’t give the recipient of bad news a chance to be heard and a chance to react in a reciprocal environment.
Listen actively, and be open to feedback
Delivering bad news can sometimes feel traumatizing for the messenger, and when fear sets in, it can be hard to listen attentively and take-in feedback. But if you walk into a situation with the intention of listening and soliciting actionable feedback, suddenly the dynamics can change, giving you a greater feeling of control in the situation. It also makes the recipient of bad news feel like they are being validated and engaged in the process.