The 3 Toughest Conversations Managers Need to Have

Nov 5, 2015
6 Min Read

From delivering a poor performance evaluation to addressing hygiene issues, part of being a manager is tackling some tough conversations with team members.

Here are three of the toughest conversations that you might need to have in your career … and the secrets to handling them well.

1. Delivering a poor performance evaluation. Delivering negative feedback can be hard in any circumstance; when you’re doing it in the context of an overall poor assessment of a person’s work, it’s even tougher. A poor performance evaluation isn’t just saying “you need to improve your client management skills” or “let’s work on your meeting facilitation skills”; it’s saying “overall, you’re doing poorly in your job, and we need to see some serious changes for you to continue in the role.” For most managers, that’s a hard message to deliver, and obviously a hard one for the employee to hear.

How to approach it: Hopefully you’ve been giving the employee feedback throughout the year, so the poor evaluation won’t be a surprise (although it’s often still tough to see an overall low ranking, something that even regular feedback doesn’t always prepare people for). Remember that you’d be doing the employee a huge disservice if you didn’t talk candidly about the problems you see, and that direct, straightforward conversation about where things stand is what will give the person the best chance of ultimately being able to make the changes you need.

2. Talking to an employee about body odor or other hygiene issues. If you’re lucky, you might make it through your whole career without ever having to have this conversation. But if you do ever have an employee with hygiene issues, you’ve got to speak up because it will affect the way your employee is perceived (and potentially affect the way your company is perceived, if the person is client-facing).

How to approach it: Ask to talk privately with the employee at the end of the day (so the person isn’t stuck at work for hours afterwards, feeling self-conscious). Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. For example, you might say: “I want to bring up something that's awkward, and I hope I don't offend you. I have noticed you have had a noticeable odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don’t realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention and ask you to see what you can do about it.”

3. Announcing a decision that you know will make people unhappy. Everyone likes the part of management where you get to give people good news – a raise, a cool new perk, great feedback from the CEO on someone’s pet project. But sometimes you’ll be the one delivering news that you know will be a blow to people, whether it’s a shift in strategy that your team opposed or a process change that will make people’s work lives harder.

How to approach it: Explain the reason behind the decision, what considerations were taken into account, and why other options weren’t chosen. Even when people don’t like the decision, they’re more likely to accept it if they understand why it was made. Also, if you have the chance to get people’s input before the decision is made, make sure that you do. Not only will that help you reach a better decision, but people are likelier to be happy with the outcome if they feel their voices were heard. (But don’t do this if their input won’t actually matter; that’s a good way to turn people cynical.)

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