Why having difficult conversations is essential for a healthy workplace (and how to have them)

Sarah Tidey
December 14, 2016

With summer holidays just around the corner and a long list of things to get done before the Christmas break, it can be tempting to put off tough conversations with your staff until next year, like those tacky decorations we hide at the back of the Christmas tree.

Maybe one of your team members has a problem with punctuality or has been rude in team meetings. Is there someone who has not been pulling their weight on a project?

If a problem exists, it exists whether we talk to it or not. Carl Jung said that what we don’t make conscious, emerges later as ‘fate’. Gradually, then suddenly. At Worklogic, we’ve observed that often the complaints we deal with emanate from the failure of a manager to have the tough conversation early and ‘nip things in the bud’.


Fear of conflict


Of course it’s human nature to avoid challenging conversations – most of us have a fear of conflict – but there’s often something greater at stake. Many of us also suffer from a degree of alethaphobia, which is an intense, illogical fear of the truth which leads us to withhold what we really think – and that applies at home and in the workplace.


  • How often have you glossed over a problem hoping in time it will resolve itself?


  • Do you paint a positive picture of a situation to others because you don’t want to burden them with the truth?


  • Have you ever sat in a meeting and been too nervous to correct someone’s account of a situation for fear of getting involved?

It takes bravery to voice the truth and sometimes it seems much safer and easier to just recite the party line. The costs of telling the truth can be significant –being ostracised by your colleagues, losing a promotion, embarrassing a colleague, losing a seat at the table, being labelled as ‘difficult’.


Championing your values and code of conduct


But it is critically important to champion and reinforce the standards of acceptable behaviour, your organisational code of conduct and the agreed values at your workplace. And that means that, as well as recognising those who are consistently demonstrating these behaviours, you need to address instances when someone’s behaviour is not living up to your standards.

It is also important to provide this feedback in a timely fashion, as soon as practical after the behaviour has occurred, so the situation is not allowed to fester or escalate and it is clear that this type of behaviour is not tolerated in your workplace.

So if there is a colleague with whom you need to have a challenging conversation, don’t delay it until the New Year. Place ‘clear and honest’ communications at the top of your Christmas wish list. With some careful planning and management, this conversation can be beneficial for all parties and help create more positive working environment.


How to manage a challenging conversation


1. Determine the most pressing issue


Don’t be tempted to completely download on the individual you need to talk to. Think about what your most pressing concern is. It should be a real and current issue. Keep the conversation brief and to the point.


2. Clarify the issue


Conversations tend to fall apart when the issue is not clearly identified. Make sure you can give clear examples. The person should understand what it is they are doing or not doing and what the desired behaviour is.


3. Review the current impact


Explain how this person’s behaviour is impacting the workplace and what will happen if it continues.


4. Own your contribution to the problem


Be honest about any role you may have played in the current situation and avoid blaming or finger pointing.


5. Describe the ideal outcome


Be clear about what you would like to see happen or change.


6. Commit to action


Agree on a plan of action and a timeline and stick to it.


Being upfront is actually far fairer and kinder to your colleagues and is critical for building a positive working environment for all staff. I’m sure we would all agree that this is something that we could all do with a bit more of this Christmas.


About Sarah Tidey

Sarah TideySarah Tidey has been a consultant with Worklogic for six years, with a focus on workplace investigations and reviews as well as training. Sarah gained a comprehensive understanding of risk management and people management from fifteen years’ experience in the legal and financial services sectors. Sarah applies strong analytical and communication skills in workplace investigations and training.

Worklogic offers a range of programs and in-house training to help organisations build a positive work culture and reduce workplace conflict. Please contact Sarah via email or give her a call on (03) 9981 6500 for a confidential discussion on strategies to improve the work/life balance at your work.

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