Conducting difficult conversations: A must-have skill for managers
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Conducting difficult conversations: A must-have skill for managers

Early in my management career two employees, Becky and Jeff, came into my office and closed the door behind them.

“Melissa’s cubicle looks and smells like a garbage dump,” said Becky.

“The two of us are on either side of her,” said Jeff, “and we’re fed up. Her cube is littered with candy wrappers. The floor is covered with popcorn and crumbs. She’s got week-old sandwiches on her desk. Why does the company tolerate that? It affects our work and we want you to do something about it.”

After they left, I decided to delegate the task to a lower-level manager. That would be more appropriate, I told myself. But that was nonsense. The truth was that I’d had lots of performance-related “tough talks” and I’d gotten pretty good at doing them. But this was different. This was about an employee’s personal habits and I was way, way out of my comfort zone. My initial instinct to delegate this dirty deed was a cowardly cop-out.

The good news is that I quickly realized that if I wanted to be a serious, credible manager, I had to teach myself to handle difficult conversations. And fast. Because Becky and Jeff meant business when they said, “Do something.”

So I called Melissa into my office and completely mishandled the conversation. She got very upset. I was uncomfortable beyond words and it showed. Fact is, I had no plan. I now know that you can’t go into a difficult conversation without a clear road map. There’s a way to initiate the discussion that cuts the tension. There’s a way to confront the key issue head-on without waffling. And there’s a way to end the conversation that won’t result in tears or acrimony. It’s all about having a plan.

photo credit: dan taylor

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