Management Skills

4 mistakes managers make when having difficult conversations

3 min read

Paige Magarrey

This article is based on research from our Ultimate guide to having difficult conversations with employees.

It’s never easy to sit down with an employee for one of those hard talks. Maybe their numbers have slipped. Maybe they are coming in late every day. Maybe they’ve been turned down for a promotion. Whatever the reason, it’s going to be a tough 30 minutes.

But things can be much worse – especially if you make one (or more!) of the common mistakes managers make when having difficult conversations.

We spoke with Elizabeth Freedman, Principal at executive coaching firm Bates Communications, and executive coach Bruce Mayhew, to learn more.

Here are four mistakes managers make when having difficult conversations with employees:

1. Going in underprepared

We talk about this a lot in our guide to having difficult conversations with employees, but it bears repeating: don’t just saunter into the meeting room with a vague idea of what the problem is.

“We see managers and leaders often underprepare and underestimate how the information will land with the other person,” explains Elizabeth. “If we haven’t set expectations properly, people can feel incredibly surprised and caught off guard. We also tend to underestimate our own discomfort with the topic. Winging it in these situations elevates the challenge and can create surprise and defensiveness on both sides.”

2. Ignoring emotions

Managers often steer clear of this minefield because they worry they’ll end up crossing a line. Instead, they lean in to the technical side of things: HR policies, rules, contracts.

Unfortunately, this never addresses an individual’s personal needs of having to feel heard, respected, understood,” warns Bruce. “It also often means any solution is dictated to them – not one that is collaborative, agreed upon and addresses what very likely is also a personal need or understand the employee has. This erodes trust and loyalty toward the leader and/or the company. If this happens, it often leads to a drop in productivity and/or loyalty by a potentially valued – already trained employee beginning to look elsewhere for employment.”

3. Not looking at the full picture

When you’re delivering negative feedback, or having an otherwise difficult conversation with an employee, it’s crucial that you present them with the full picture.

“Honesty and clarity are key. Failing to address the full picture compounds the problem,” says Elizabeth. “We have had situations where only partial feedback is provided on an employee’s shortcomings or the leader doesn’t give the complete picture as to why someone was passed up for promotion. This leaves the person with a lack of clarity, which does them a disservice and reduces the likelihood of their being able to take action after the conversation.”

Again, this goes back to preparation. Do the legwork beforehand to know the situation from all angles, so that after the conversation, your employee leaves with a clear sense of what the desired outcome is, what their next steps are and when follow ups will occur.

4. Waiting too long to talk

This can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe you’re hoping the problem will resolve itself. Maybe you’re afraid they’ll get upset. Maybe you’re simply dreading the awkward conversation. No matter what the reason, it will just make matter worse.

“In most cases, difficult situations don’t go away – and by ignoring them a leader is just reinforcing that undesirable behaviour – which means it keeps happening and likely begins happening more frequently,” says Bruce. “Eventually, the situation does need to be addressed, but instead of having an early difficult conversation about a small issue, it becomes a very difficult conversation – perhaps even conflict about a big issue.”

For more on having difficult conversations, include tips to help you before, during and after the talk, check out our Ultimate guide to having difficult conversations with employees.