View from HR: Why managers shouldn’t avoid tough conversations

A challenge for new managers is having the right kinds of tough conversations with employees. Managers who master this soft skill will receive bigger responsibilities.

The easiest tough conversations to handle are at the extremes, such as talking with an employee engaging in far too much (or too little) of a behavior. Avoiding conversations at these extremes hurts everyone by making basic expectations seem unclear and arbitrary.

For example, many workplace behaviors have defined standards or some type of norm. Attendance problems, quality defects, low production levels, customer service failures, slow sales activity, offensive conduct, ethical violations and incompetence usually have written or known expectations at a business.

Coaching an employee about behaviors violating these norms should be timely and either clearly supportive (providing instruction and help) or directive (mandating counseling or termination). Postponing these discussions only makes the future conversation on violations more difficult.

The gray zone

If a manager’s desire to be liked by everyone means he or she avoids difficult conversations with employees, should he or she be a manager? A central management responsibility is to confront poor behaviors clearly, consistently and sometimes forcefully.

The toughest conversations, even for experienced managers, arise in the gray zone of behaviors. Often these behaviors are within societal norms and only become work problems because of the requirements of a particular role. In other words, this tough conversation is less about known norms and more about an employee’s effectiveness in and suitability for this role.

Prove this to yourself by looking at any job description. Most are solid in listing expected norms and minimum standards. Some include aspirational goals or success factors. Few are written to capture the difference between an acceptable performer and a truly effective employee, however.

Many gray zone conversations are the result of “who” the employee is at his or her core. Conversations about a person are always harder than talking about behaviors. The goal should be to keep the tough discussion focused on observable behaviors, not the “why” of that behavior. Limited “why” conversations can help resolve misunderstandings but cannot usually correct psychological drivers.

Influence and trust

Take the typical case of an employee hired to perform technical tasks. The job description speaks of technical needs and standards. The employee meets those qualifications. However, his or her effectiveness is hurt by interpersonal skills that keep others from cooperating or interacting at effective levels.

For example, the failure to return work emails from staff violates a clear norm. But the bigger problem is gray, such as how an email is drafted or how a conversation is conducted or avoided. Gray issues are as important to real success in the role as technical knowledge but harder to describe and confront.

Focusing the tough conversation on observed behaviors rather than intent makes it possible for a manager to convey and explain the needed changes. What is the difference between barely adequate behaviors and truly effective ones? Explain why influence and trust are needed for success, not just technical skills. As the problem is in the gray zone, there should be more opportunity for questions, clarification and even some debate.

Managers and employees need tough conversations to grow the business and their skills. Seize the opportunity.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit