The Best Way to Approach Tough Conversations with Tough Employees

As a small business owner, it’s likely you’ll come across challenges with an employee at some point.
Maybe it’s a small issue, like not doing a proper counter-clean after their shift. Or maybe it’s a performance problem that requires a larger conversation, like habitually coming in late or not being a team player. Whatever the case, you need to be thoughtful about how you approach the employee about their underperformance and then handle the conversation.

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Do your homework.

Leadership and management expert Jill Geisler at the Poynter Institute has a three-pronged approach for difficult talks: preparation, focus, and follow-up. Geisler suggests coming into the meeting with facts and context to frame the conversation. This leaves less room for interpretation. Be mindful of the time and place of the talk, considering the impact these factors might have on the employee and the rest of the office.

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Prepare yourself mentally.

An article in the Harvard Business Review says that if you get it set in your head that you’re going to have a “difficult” conversation, then the conversation will be difficult. Instead, reframe to the positive. Coach yourself: It’s not negative feedback but constructive criticism to help set the employee up to succeed.

Don’t script the conversation.

Jotting down notes and key points helps your delivery sound natural and flexible rather than rigid or artificial. Be a good listener and give the employee the chance to share their thoughts. Leave your emotions at the door — staying calm is key to remaining objective.

Keep it focused.

Try not to dance around the issues. Share specific examples of how the employee has underperformed. Explain how their behavior affects the team and the business as a whole to instill a sense of responsibility and obligation. Set clear expectations that you have as a manager (it’s possible that the employee didn’t know they were doing anything wrong) and ask them what they think they can do to remedy their shortcomings.

Have clear takeaways.

Both you and the employee should come away with clear action items. It’s a good idea to set up future performance benchmarks and schedule a follow-up date to talk about progress. This shows that you’re serious and committed to helping.

Above anything, always keep in mind the purpose of the conversation. At a small business, each and every employee is vital — so make sure you’re expressing the desire to set them on the path to success.

Photo credit: “Interview”, by Alper Çuğun, Flickr, CC by 2.0, cropped from original.

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