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Difficult conversations (and HR support to make them work)

Bill Larke, founder and Director of myHRdeptDifficult conversations


As lockdown advances and employees, some reluctantly, return to work places, it seems an appropriate moment to ponder the concept of the ‘difficult’ conversation, a management technique that seemingly eludes so many.

Many serious workplace situations, ending up in a collapse of trust and irreparable relationships, stem from an inherent inability to articulate an emerging problem to the person from whom the problem emits. I think this might be a cultural thing, perhaps confined to the British and certain other nations. I know plenty of Aussies, Eastern Europeans and South Africans who just call it as it is, in a refreshingly blunt, but honest way. Listening to these people, there’s no excuse not to know exactly what they’re talking about, and what they need you to do. That cultural bluntness can take some getting used to admittedly, and over Christmas I presided over the dismissal, quite justifiably, of an employee who couldn’t get to grips with it all. She felt her managers were being rude, they felt they were being direct, efficient and unequivocal.

There’s a difference between getting to the point and being rude or unfair, and managers sometimes fail to grasp that. Being direct doesn’t entail being a bully, and bullying is definitely not acceptable. Being respectfully clear and direct in order to bring about a desired change in behaviour is absolutely fine. Over my 30 years in HR many people have told me they would rather know about a problem, than not know. Only by knowing, do they have a chance to do something about it.

The pensive owner or manager, perhaps frightened of being sued or of being involved in argument, doesn’t give clarity, and chooses to wallow in a void of inaction, his internal resentment grows while the behaviour he doesn’t like becomes entrenched, and spreads to others. A perfectly solvable problem grows and mutates to become something he can no longer cope with, and people get fired. In some cases, businesses close. You might not believe me, but over the 20 years I’ve been involved with myHRdept, I’ve seen numerous business owners in tears, drawn to the edge of desperation by staff they can no longer cope with, and I have seen businesses close as a result – it’s true – I’ve carried out the redundancies myself.

A beginning, a middle and an end.

The ‘difficult conversation’ is only difficult because we lack the confidence to have it, for whatever reason. I’m going to re-name it the ‘intervention conversation’ because it needn’t be ‘difficult’. It does, however, need to be planned carefully and handled in the right place, at the right time and in the right way. These conversations should be about coaching, not punishing, more about exploring and explaining, than expressing dissatisfaction. Like many good management practices, the intervention conversation needs to have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. The ‘end’ should always be, if well handled, to have achieved a desired change.

Intervention conversations should be used to achieve change, but another form of the same technique can also (and should also) be used to reinforce positive behaviours and to acknowledge achievements above the norm.

Free management training from myHRdept.

If you’d like to know more about ‘difficult conversations’ or you have managers that you think would benefit, why not speak to the team at myHRdept?  We would be happy to run a virtual training session for you, or your managers, to show them how difficult conversations are done. This should help build the confidence to deal with problems, rather than avoid them. The technique forms the basis for a range of HR processes, performance improvement and conduct included.

For most myHRdept retained clients these sessions will be free of charge, included in your service package with us.

(myHRdept is in the process of rolling out management training across a range of people-related disciplines. These are now included within most myHRdept retained packages, and downloadable material is available from the members area. For your access details, please contact us. To arrange a personal training session for your organisation, please contact us.)

If you’re thinking of outsourcing your HR or employment law needs, why not contact myHRdept? Call us on 01628 820515 to discuss your requirements or contact us and we’ll call you back.

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