• A staff member complains about a colleague's poor hygiene
  • A client is unhappy with the way your sales rep continually interrupts them
  • Someone’s behaviour is poor, but their performance is great

These are just a few examples of situations where leaders need to step up. Notice I said “leaders”, not “managers”. Because leaders have to manage and managers have to lead.  Mastering the art of the tricky conversation is a key leadership skill.

They’re called difficult conversations for a reason. It’s a rare person who hasn’t had one go badly awry, either on the giving or receiving end. That’s why we tend to avoid them. At the time it seems the upside is overwhelmingly countered by the downside. 

But if we don’t have these conversations, at the right time, in the right place and with the right approach, we do both ourselves and the other person an injustice.

Allowing someone to continue down a path without correction sends the message that the behaviour or performance is OK. It sets new norms both for them and others in the team. I have seen it build resentment in both myself and in the others around the person involved.

Now, on the other hand when we get the conversation right it builds the team. Aberrant behaviours are brought into line early, the team can see that you value the team as a whole rather than allow one individual to play their own game.

We need both the willingness and the capability to have these conversations effectively. Plot where you are on the matrix below: On the horizontal axis consider your capability in conducting these conversations (low through to high), on the vertical, gauge how willing you are to actually have these conversations (low to high)…


I want to focus this section (and indeed the next couple of articles) on the “skills” side of things, how well you conduct these conversations. Once our technique and approach is right, I've found the willingness grows (but you might need to give yourself a prod every now and then).

In my experience there are three critical components for these conversations:

1.  Preparation   

It’s vitally important you fully understand what’s going on before you launch into one of these conversations. Dig around, talk to a few people, get it clear in your mind what the real issue is. Rehearse your opening lines, these set the tone for the whole meeting.

Turning up late for work is a popular topic. Understand why the person is late for work. Are they up late playing World of Warcraft, are they holding down a second job, are they a little bit lazy, or are do they work better late at night. It’s often easy to uncover the drivers behind behaviour.

2. The conversation itself

There’s so much to talk about here we don’t have room for it all, so I’ll just cover some key concepts now (see below for further resources):

  • Ask what and why questions – Ask questions to establish what is going on for them, drill into why it matters. This demonstrates respect by acknowledging we may not understand the full complexity of the situation
  • Use facts not generalisations – say “6 of the last 10 days you have arrived at least 30 minutes late”, instead of “You are often late”. Facts are irrefutable so use them to challenge absolute words such as "everyone", "no-one", "always" and "never".
  • Listen carefully, particularly with your eyes – great eye contact and neutral body language will facilitate greater openness and trust. Avoid taking too many notes
  • Clarify but don't interrupt - confirm you understand what is being said by paraphrasing their words and checking that you've got it straight. Only do this once the person has finished talking.
  • Reach an agreement – even it’s an interim one where there’s a target to be on time 80% of the time. You both need a measure for accountability and a timeframe to achieve it.

3.  Afterwards

It’s important that the issue is just not left alone after the conversation. Set up a time to review progress and celebrate success. Importantly, make sure your feelings about this behaviour don’t spill over into other areas of their work or behaviour. You goal is to solve just one issue at a time.

Have a great month, and remember to Regret the things you do, not the things you don’t do.

Additional Resources


Photo courtesy of Glenn Ehmke, 2010 ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year. Used with permission.