The ability to effectively confront a staff member is a skill that no leader really wants to develop. But in order to be a great leader and employer, it’s a critical talents for you to master.
When these tough conversations are handled well, it can lead to positive change, newfound direction and productivity, and growth for both you and the employee. On the flipside, if you don’t handle these delicate conversations well, you risk de-motivating the employee, encouraging team gossip or negativity, and even damaging your relationship with the employee or losing them altogether.
Most of us entrepreneurs learn this skill the hard way, through trial and error. If you’re like I was when I was a young leader, you might make some mistakes in these conversations and then see the negative impact firsthand. Or maybe your anxiety surrounding these conversations causes you to put them off way longer than you should. So, leaders, I urge you to learn to develop this invaluable skill early on to avoid making the mistakes I did or letting an issue snowball out of control.
Here’s a step-by-step guide how to have a positive confrontation with an employee.
Step One: Pinpoint the actual issue.
Don’t have a confrontational conversation with an employee if you are unable to be unemotional or objective about it. An outburst or passive-aggressive approach will always do more harm than good. As a leader, it’s vital that you don’t let your own frustration or anger speak into the conversation.
Take a big step back and think through exactly what is the issue at hand that needs to be addressed. What is the specific behavior that you’d like to see change? Can you give specific examples of it? Can you also give specific examples of how they could correct this issue?
Step Two: Hold the conversation on neutral ground.
Don’t make this conversation a spur-of-the-moment decision. Plan the logistics ahead of time. Can you set up a time with the employee to chat? Decide where the conversation will take place. Will you be in your office or take them to neutral ground like a coffee shop or out to lunch? Try not to simply sit behind your desk – this can make you come across as detached or judgmental. Think through how you would want someone to initiate this conversation if your behavior was in question – what environment would make you feel safe and not in defense-mode? Make sure there’s no chance of other employees overhearing or interrupting you. If the issue at hand is especially sensitive and needs to be documented (i.e., this conversation may be a precursor to this employee being fired), be sure to have someone else in the meeting as an objective third-party.
Step Three: Use intentional language.
This conversation is likely to replay over and over in the employee’s head (and possibly repeated to other staff members or the employee’s family members), so choose your words wisely and intentionally . As I mentioned, use specific, concrete examples of the behavior you’d like to see change. Avoid word and phrases like “always,” “never,” “it seems,” or “I feel.” Be objective and calm, and don’t assign intent or read into their behavior in question.
Step Four: Address the impact.
Next, describe how this specific behavior has hindered the team or impacted the company’s output. Why are you bringing up the issue? Again, choose your language very carefully, and don’t phrase anything accusatorily. Don’t make assumptions about their motives.
Step Five: Ask questions & listen.
Too often, employees walk away from conversations of this nature feeling that it was one-sided; like they got lectured and no one heard their side. This can breed negativity, gossip, and silos on your staff. On the contrary, asking questions is the key indicator of a stellar leader, and it’s also the key step in ensuring that this tough conversation can have a positive impact.
Instead, take the time to ask questions and really listen to their response. “Is there a cause for this behavior that I’m not seeing that I could help you with?” “Are there ways I can equip you to be more productive or happy in your role?” Don’t just communicate, “Change, or else.” Allow them to take ownership and to express what they were thinking or dealing with. It’s possible there were underlying issues that you didn’t know about. Help them be a part of the solution. Ask, “What are some things you can do to address this issue? How can I help you?”
Step Six: Set up a time to re-assess.
Lastly, once the employee feels heard and has come up with some ways they will strive to grow and change the issue at hand, plan a time to revisit the conversation. Have noticeable changes been made? Recognize and affirm that with the employee. Ask them more questions, “How have these solutions or changes been working for you?” and “How can I continue to equip you in this area?” If no changes have been made and the team members does not seem open to growth, it may be time to begin a probationary period.
These kinds of confrontational conversations are a necessary evil in any workplace. But elite leaders who lead healthy teams know how to make these conversations a positive catalyst for growth, and they strive to develop their skills in this area.