Three Keys to Successfully Handling Difficult Conversations with Employees

by: Mike Dugan, MBA

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Three Keys to Successfully Handling Difficult Conversations with Employees

People managers rarely become great leaders without the ability to handle tough conversations well. A leader’s ability to successfully handle difficult conversations with employees is imperative. All parties (the employee, the organization, and the leader) benefit when such conversations are handled constructively.

Step #1: INTENT.
Intent is of paramount importance. One must approach difficult conversations with a caring and helpful intent. If a leader goes into a difficult conversation “looking for a pound of flesh”, the likelihood of the meeting going well is greatly diminished. Remember, words represent only 20% of our communication. The other 80% consists of body language, tonality, and other micro-behaviors that signal our true feelings. Don’t walk into a difficult conversation until your intent is that of a helpful and caring leader. I’m not saying this mindset is easy to achieve. However, I am saying this is mindset is enormously important.

As leaders, regardless of industry, our priority should be the protection, safety and motivation of our employees. We should strive to keep them motivated and energized. As a sales-leader specifically, I want my sales folks to believe they can run through brick walls. I want them highly motivated, highly confident and highly engaged. It is therefore critically important that we never tear-down our employees. Instead we must strive to continually build them up. We must do our very best to instill a high level of confidence and capability within them.

It’s important not to intentionally damage, lower or degrade a person’s confidence, motivation or self-worth. But how does a leader ensure she won’t damage the employee when entering into a difficult conversation? This can be accomplished by separating the person from their behavior. You see, in difficult conversations we are simply trying to correct behaviors and performance. We’re never trying to change or correct the individual – the person. That would be crazy, as it is very difficult, if not impossible to change an individual. We can only hope to change a specific behavior or performance level.

Let’s look at a quick example: Bill is not meeting his sales number for the third quarter in a row. It’s time to have a difficult conversation with Bill. Once we ensure our intent is “right” we then begin the process of separating Bill from his behavior/performance. We might say: “Bill everyone on the team really likes you. We believe in you. You’re an important part of our team, and we value you a great deal. However, we’re becoming concerned about your sales performance. We know you’re concerned as well. What steps can we take together to help improve your performance?

In the example above, we first share with Bill that he is valued as a person and capable contributor. He is immediately informed of our confidence in his ability to perform. Yet we must also ensure that his poor sales performance is addressed directly and specifically. The critical take-away in this example is that we never degrade or de-motivate Bill. We only call-out Bill’s poor performance. We never degrade him as a person. Hence the critical importance of separating a person from their behavior.

It’s very important to develop an action-plan that will allow the employee to improve his performance. Without such a plan, a change in behavior (increased sales performance in this example) will not occur. The improvement plan should originate directly from the individual, not the organization, nor a manager. Having employees develop their own plan of action has the powerfully impact of creating employee “buy-in” to the plan. When an improvement plan instead comes from the organization or a manager, the employee has less vested interest in the plan’s success. In this scenario, because Bill developed the plan himself (although perhaps facilitated by his manager) he will work infinitely harder to ensure is ultimately successful.
Difficult conversations with employees need not be problematic.

Follow these three easy steps:
1.) Ensure your intent is correct.
2.) Separated the employee from their behavior/performance, and
3.) Allow the employee to construct their own plan of action.
PS: This method also works great at home, for modifying our kids’ behavior!

With over 25 years as a successful Fortune 500 VP of Sales, Mike Dugan now helps small and mid-size companies in Southeastern Virginia and Richmond grow and scale their sales organizations. Reach him at or 757-679-4321.