How to Have a Tough Conversation with a Staff Member

Leadership often requires that we sometimes must navigate a tough conversation with a staff person. It’s easy to neglect such vital conversations for several reasons: fear, they’ve gone sour in the past, we don’t know how, etc.  But to lead well, we must not avoid those talks. I’ve learned that a simple process called active listening can help make those interactions go much better. Here’s how it works.

First, appropriately set up your conversation. Assume, for example, that an employee named John is consistently late to work and you need to talk to him about that. To give him some sense of control (when we feel like we have control we can dampen the brain’s fear response), don’t spring the conversation on him. Ask John in a non-emotional moment that you’d like to talk about office hours at his convenience. Ask him to let you know a time that might work.

The conversation might go like this.

John, I’d like to chat with you for about 15 minutes about our office hours. Would you mind looking at your calendar and suggesting a couple of times that might work with your schedule? After I hear from you, I’ll check my schedule and then we’ll set a time. Thanks.

So assume that you both agree on a time. Before you meet, carefully think through what you want to say using this simple acronym, DESC. This easy-to-remember tool can help guide your conversation, keep it positive, and secure commitment for the desired change. Here’s what DESC stands for.

  • D: Describe the negative behavior.
  • E: Express the emotions you feel when you see the negative behavior.
  • S: State the positive behavior you desire.
  • C: Explain the consequences that will result with the new positive behavior you desire.

Here’s what a conversation might look like using the DESC model. I’ve shortened the conversation for brevity’s sake.

D

John, I’m noticing that you are often late to work. As you know we want to be here at nine so we can get in a full day of productive work.

E

When you are consistently late for work I feel frustrated because it does not provide a good example for the rest of the team. Sometimes I also feel angry at you because we’ve talked about this before. I don’t want to start my day feeling frustrated or angry at you.

S

Going forward, I want you to be at work at nine.

C

When you start arriving at work on time, it will help keep up team morale and help me start out with a positive disposition toward you for the day.

After you share your thoughts above, ask for a commitment from John to be on time and then set a mutually agreed upon follow up date to gauge progress.

This simple tool works not only in the workplace, but at home as well.

How have you handled those difficult conversations?

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