Many owners and leaders have confided in me that one of the most difficult aspects of their job are those difficult conversations they have to have with their employees. A lot of those leaders either ignore them or hope they will go away by themselves. But wishful thinking is not managerial thinking. To face up to personal employee habits that may upset customers or colleagues, team leaders need to have a strategy, a plan, and the skills to confidently know how to put things right. As with everything, there are right ways and wrong ways to have these sensitive discussions and I hope you choose the right way.
Difficult Conversations: A 5-Point Plan
The following plan can be applied to any difficult conversation with an employee whose habits need to be changed. These include employees with unpleasant personal habits, such as poor personal hygiene, as well as employees with attitude problems.
1. It's Only Difficult If You Think It Is
Drop the idea that this will be a "difficult" conversation. Look at it in terms of a performance issue. Focus on the desired outcome which is always to bring the person up to the standards required of everyone. Remember that you have the assertive right to raise the issue if it is something that affects you or the people you are responsible for. You don't have to justify, explain or excuse yourself.
2. Even When It's a Personal Issue, Don't Make It Personal
Many "difficult" situations generate strong emotions in people which in turn make the exchange appear personal. The only feeling you should have is a desire to help the other person. If you are feeling angry, anxious, or embarrassed, stop. Connect your head to your heart. Discuss what the person is doing and what they can do differently. This is not about who they are.
3. Ease Your Way In
In any conversation that deals with personal issues, it is best to ease your way in while not misleading the person about the subject under discussion. One good route into the personal is to start with clichés, such as "How are things going?", then to move on to facts, proceed to their views, and finally to how they feel. Do this without skirting around the issues or trying to sneak the issue in under the guise of something else.
4. Link Your Feedback to a Business Issue
If you are the team leader, you need to relate everything in the conversation to business issues, e.g. "your appearance (manner; hair style; hygiene; grooming; attitude) isn't what our customers' expect from a business like ours". While they may want to explain why they are behaving as they are, "why" is not what it's about. Acknowledge their reasons, but don't go there. For you, it's more about "what" - what they are doing and what they can do differently.
5. Have a Neutral Spot Where You Can Both Go If Things Become Awkward
If people become defensive, it is likely that you've hit a raw nerve. It's at this stage that you need to back off by going to a neutral third spot where you can both look at the behavior dispassionately. Don't challenge them by saying something like, "Your personal hygiene needs to be improved". Instead, say something like, "Let's try to figure out why you and I see this issue differently".
Difficult Conversations: You Can Succeed
Difficult conversations are unavoidable in the workplace but, given the right approach and the right skills, they can be managed. You should aim to put emotions, stress, and personal issues aside and bring behavior, performance, and the business center-stage. Keep your composure, be compassionate, and be determined to create a successful outcome.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid these conversations otherwise the issue will grow and fester. It will impact more of your business operations than you know. Develop a plan of action before having these difficult conversations and you, the employee and the business will be much better off.