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Posted by on in Workplace training

As professional mediators, the PSW HR Solutions team are often asked by clients for advice about how to handle difficult conversations in the workplace.  

It is a predictable part of working life that we will need to have difficult conversations with clients, staff and stakeholders at some point. Many managers rely on their position to ‘manage’ people rather than developing the skills to lead through engagement and the ability to influence. 

Proactively managing difficult conversations can be a litmus test for many people in the workplace.  Unfortunately, many people find the process intimidating and go to great lengths to avoid a personal conversation.  Alternatively, a clumsy response can inflame the potential conflict which makes the situation even more uncomfortable for everyone!

When handled well, difficult conversations can be a good thing.  

They create opportunities for people to find common ground, confirm expectations around behaviour and performance and create improved understanding. Open and personal communication allows ongoing organisational problems/ festering issues that often affect others in the workplace to be positively managed. Confident management of challenging conversations can be the catalyst for new or improved workplace practices and processes being implemented. They may even create the space for new perspectives to be considered and/or result in a change in management direction or thinking.

So how do you get from the ‘Houston, we have a problem’ stage to sustainable positive outcomes? 

A great place to start is with your preparation and planning skills. Here are our top tips to improve your confidence in managing even the hardest workplace conversations:

1.  Prepare before the discussion. Consider time, date and place. Your goal is to progress the situation positively, not make it worse. Reflect on what the key points of the discussion need to be so you can stay focused and don’t get side-tracked or forget important things you need to mention.  The location can be critical in platforming positive outcomes – where is the best location to raise contentious issues?

2.  Do your research to ensure the information you intend to provide is accurate. Distinguish between opinions, hearsay and facts. Don’t make assumptions about the other person’s motives or intentions – and don’t assume that they will be able to see things from your point of view.

3.  Be clear in your own mind about what you want to achieve from the conversation.  Are you just trying to raise the other person’s awareness of a difficult issue or aiming for a change in work performance, personal attitude or behaviour?  Try to summarise your goal/s in two or three short sentences. What outcome from the discussion would you consider to be a satisfactory result? Can it be measured. If so, how?

4.  What will your opening statement be? This could set the tone for the entire conversation so think about it carefully. Mentally rehearse what you want to say in your mind. Picture yourself calmly outlining what the issues and impacts are for the individual concerned, the team, and the workplace as a whole. Can you think of a way to start and finish on a positive and supporting note? 

5.  How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of the information that you will provide? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you feel fear, embarrassment, anger or shame?  Anticipate and prepare for the person to ‘vent’ or become emotional.  Anticipate the range of reactions and plan for those responses.

5.  Focus on your communication skills – verbal, non verbal and active listening skills. Keep the language around the discussion as objective and unemotional as possible. Your capacity to communicate assertively and confidently will be a key factor in your ability to manage difficult conversations positively. 

6.  Consider what your role may have been in the situation. Don’t just rely on your own judgement.  Ask a trusted colleague for their perspective. You may not be fully aware how your own actions or words have influenced the behaviour, attitude or decisions of others.  If, on reflection, you feel you may be at fault in some way, be prepared to be honest and open about your part in the matter.

7.  Show respect for the other person. Don’t ambush them with an unexpected meeting or tip-toe around the subject in fear of an imminent explosion. Be courageous and clearly articulate the reason for needing to have the conversation, i.e. be specific about the issue/s you want to talk about.  Book an agreed date and time to have the discussion. Most people appreciate a direct approach and authenticity far more than side-steps and false camaraderie.

8.  Be prepared to allow the other person to help come up with a solution or next steps forward.  This will show that you are listening, being open and flexible.  It may also mean the other party is more likely to respect and abide by whatever actions are agreed upon as a result of the discussion.

If you would like to speak to the PSW HR Solutions team about working with your management and leadership teams on how to handle the difficult conversations, please get in touch.

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The transition into a leadership role can often be a challenging time for both the individual and the organisation.  It is in everyone’s best interest that this process be managed to create the smoothest possible move to the new role.

Below are just a few strategies for those leaders in the organisation supporting people making the transition, and also those newly appointed leaders.

Positive strategies for organisations

  • Recruit wisely for your leadership roles. 

Many organisations will promote the next in line and this can sometimes be problematic.  Some people are very technically strong, but do not necessarily have the people management skills, or desire, to assume responsibilities inherent in leadership roles.  Consider the leadership skill set the business needs carefully.  What are your priorities as a business unit? Based on the current business goals, has your candidate demonstrated enough capability to validate the decision to move into staff management responsibilities? Being technically strong does not equate to skills in people management.  The skill sets are very different!

  • Clearly outline what the new role will involve.

Clear communication of expectations from the outset avoids problems down the track.  Be specific for example on issues such as, additional hours, increased responsibility, management of budgets, travel requirements. 

  • Clearly outline how their performance will be evaluated.

Specify in what ways will their performance be measured, how regularly and any bonus or incentive scheme provisions.

  • Provide (meaningful) coaching and mentoring support. 

Particularly in the early stages,  provide regular access to the right people to ensure the new leader has an opportunity to discuss any concerns, outline their progress, ask questions or seek advice. Coaching and mentoring is a very powerful form of staff development and will give the new leader confidence to respond to their new challenges positively.   

  • Provide leadership training

Quality training and development, particularly in relation to people management skills, is a crucial part of building confidence in newly appointed leaders.  Training programs help leaders to build and develop positive leadership behaviours which directly value add to the organisation. 

Positive strategies for the new leader

  • Ensure you are clear on the commitments involved with your new role.  This can be critical if you are already within the organisation.  Issues such as maintaining confidentiality,  performance management and disciplinary responsibilities are part of a leadership role.  There is often a big difference between being one of the team and leading the team.
  • Understand the organizational expectations of your performance and how that performance will be evaluated. 
  • Assess your own strengths and focus on areas where you can grow skills.  Building self awareness is an important skill for a leader and it is a positive habit to develop. Be as objective as possible; consider specific examples that validate your self appraisal. For example, how do I know that I am communicating to my teams positively? Is my communication style engaging the team to perform at their best, or could I develop my skills to achieve even better outcomes?
  • Invest your time in creating networks and relationships with people who can give you constructive guidance and feedback.
  • Commit to ongoing professional development to keep enhancing your skill set.  Continued learning in leadership will build your confidence, broaden your network and allow you to add value and maximise your contribution to your team and the organisation. 

For more information on how to support your organisational leaders to achieve better outcomes, contact us.

Last modified on

Posted by on in Archive

Feedback from customers, as well as internal and external organisational stakeholders, provides us with a valuable opportunity to identify ways to continuously improve human resource management across the business. 

The opportunities are available only if the private and public sector organisations are brave enough to capture the feedback, analyse the trends and proactively drive improvements!

Organisations can use a number of methods to source and channel customer feedback, for example;

  • internal and external surveys,
  • feedback cards,
  • complaint processes,
  • blogs or service comments and testimonials. 

Much of that feedback inevitably relates to staff performance, both good and poor.

On the upside, positive feedback can provide a valuable opportunity to reward and acknowledge teams in a timely manner.

Just as significantly, negative feedback should be seen by organisations as a thermometer of the business unit. Effective complaint management can be a powerful early warning system of deeper people management issues that need to be addressed.

The key then becomes how to efficiently capture the data, and use that information to identify and implement sustainable improvements in people management processes and systems.

Stakeholder complaints

Complaints from internal and external stakeholders often indicate one or more of the following people management processes needs review;

  • Recruitment processes
  • Induction processes
  • Training and development
  • Workforce planning affecting service delivery (staffing or deployment models)
  • Performance management
  • Conduct management
  • Work, Health and Safety
  • HR policy design and/or implementation
  • Welfare management

What do you need to do?

The first thing to do is to ensure you have a structured process around regularly sourcing and capturing complaints and feedback.

The next step is to analyse that data objectively and really consider the various issues that may sit behind the negative comments.

Build the discussion on feedback into your regular team meetings and communication processes. This depersonalises feedback in many situations and helps to focus on the issues, rather than the person. Issue-based resolution will often result in more long term and positive outcomes. Actively involve your teams in the process as they will offer a valuable and different perspective in problem solving.

If you would like assistance in developing a complaint management system and training and development in this important area for your from a team that has experience managing this issue, please contact us.

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