Providing feedback, especially when it’s negative, can be challenging for anyone in the workplace.

However, there are effective ways to approach these conversations that can lead to positive outcomes and growth.

As someone who has worked closely with both employees and leaders, I’ve learned that preparation and clear communication are key to successfully addressing difficult topics.

Over the course of several years working as a coach and HR consultant, I’ve encountered numerous situations and have had many conversations among business owners and leaders about the challenge in having difficult conversations with their workforce.

My path, in these situations, is to start with a candid discussion with leaders and try to get to the bottom about why there’s apprehension to have that conversation. It’s also important to understand what they’re hoping to achieve at the end of that conversation.

From there we set a strategy, outline the goal, and set expectations.

Understanding the Challenge

Many employees and leaders often express difficulty in giving negative feedback because of fear of backlash or an uncomfortable emotional response. And at times, their own feelings of guilt or sadness may be attached to the situation.

To tackle this issue, I’ve developed a strategy that involves helping leaders prepare, strategize, and structure their conversations with an employee (or even a partner in the business).

The success of these discussions depends on various factors, such as the employee’s response and the direction the conversation takes, so it’s not unusual to plan a “if this than that” response strategy.

Reflecting on Past Conversations

Before diving into a difficult conversation, it’s important to reflect on past experiences.

I often advise leadership to ask themself how many times they’ve already discussed a similar issue with the employee. If the same situation has been addressed before what were the main points covered in that previous conversation and how and where was it presented?

  • Was the employee provided specific examples to reinforce the need for the corrective conversation?
  • Did this conversation happen one-on-one or was it part of a group setting, like a team training environment?
  • Was that employee provided an outline of actionable steps for improvement or were they just told they need to “fix it” without further direction?

Sharing success criteria can be particularly helpful in guiding the employee’s understanding of what’s expected.

Setting Clear Expectations

If your goal is to guide the employee toward positive change, it’s crucial to be direct and explicit about your expectations. For instance, you might say, “We need you to address this problem because it’s impacting our team’s efficiency.”

Explaining the “why” behind the reason for the requested correction can help an employee better comprehend the larger impact on the business. When people understand the reasons behind a change, they may be more willing to adapt.

Supporting Employee Growth

As you guide employees through necessary changes, it’s important that you offer your assistance and guidance, and that you make yourself available to answer further questions.

Ask them how you can help—whether it’s through additional training, improved communication, or time management strategies.

If resources are available within your company, connect them to these resources. If resources are not readily available within company walls, show them where they can obtain additional training and resources and why it’s vital they seek these out. And let them know what solutions or recourse, if any, they may have regarding company support to acquire this additional training or resource.

Creating a clear timeline for necessary actions can also provide structure and accountability. For example, you might schedule a training session in two days, during which the employee can ask questions and lead discussions.

“I am scheduling a time for you and I to sit down and train on this topic in two days. Please come prepared with any questions you have, as I would like you to lead and guide this conversation.”

And be sure to follow up with the employee to ensure they’re staying on track, and they understand the previous direction. Waiting for another incident will only create a more tense environment and increased dissatisfaction for all parties concerned – including possible customer experiences.

Empowering Employees for Success

Empowerment is a powerful tool in driving positive change.

Be direct about what needs improvement. Provide concrete examples of the issues at hand to help reinforce the challenge and the need for change. And set an expectation and timeline for the corrective action.

Be open to hearing the employee’s feedback and thoughts on how to address the challenges.

Encourage them to come up with ideas and solutions, which can foster a sense of ownership. Always aim to conclude the conversation on a positive note, with a plan for a follow-up discussion. You still have the ability to push back on them, but always leave the conversation on a positive note, with a plan in place for when you will meet and discuss again.

A Learning Opportunity

Difficult conversations might seem daunting, but they can be valuable learning experiences for both you and your team members.

Approaching these discussions with a structured plan, clear expectations, and a focus on empowerment can lead to positive growth and development. Remember, these conversations don’t always have to end negatively—instead, they can be stepping stones toward better understanding and stronger teamwork.

For more guidance on effectively navigating difficult conversations in the workplace, consider reaching out to schedule a Discovery Call.

By learning and applying these communication techniques, you can foster better working relationships and collaboration within your team.