Almost everyone who has worked in an office has experienced — either as an employee or employer — a difficult conversation at work.

Share story

Nancy Morris has been on the giving and receiving end of bad feedback.

Years ago, she was the administrative manager of a mental health unit that was the offshoot of a hospital. When she needed to bring up thorny subjects during performance reviews or at other times with employees, “I didn’t make things clear,” said Morris, now a specialist in business psychology in Ottawa, Ontario. “I would be too diplomatic. Then I would get frustrated I wasn’t being understood and I would be too harsh. I sort of missed the part in the middle.”

Later in her career, Morris was brought into a company as a senior administrator to make changes in the way a department operated. It involved streamlining systems, but not firing people.

“My boss consistently said in our reviews that my work was great and that I was creating the change they had hired me to create,” she said. “All of a sudden, one Monday morning, I was laid off.”

Setting expectations

Almost everyone who has worked in an office has experienced — either as an employee or employer — a difficult conversation at work. It may involve telling a subordinate that he’s taking too many unexplained absences or his work seems uninspired. Or perhaps asking a manager why she didn’t give you a promotion or a coveted assignment.

Knowing the art of delivering and receiving appropriate feedback is particularly important. Especially in these times of high job insecurity and streamlined workplaces, where there is less tolerance for employees who don’t seem to be pulling their weight, employers need to be clear and accurate in their assessments.

We’re all told to be “honest but diplomatic,” but translating that advice into a real dialogue takes training most of us never get.

Often supervisors put off tricky talks because they “want to be kind, hope things will get better or pray the employee quits,” said Steve Langerud, a workplace consultant.

“The end result is usually the same,” he said. Things get worse.

“I have one client who, over many years, has been kind and avoided direct conversations about performance with employees,” he added. “The result now it is hard to address issues that are impacting the organizations.”

Morris, for example, found out that other employees had been complaining about her because, she said, “my ‘go get ’em’ personality had apparently not gone over very well for some time. But my manager didn’t know how to communicate with me that things weren’t working. I would have sat and listened to feedback — I’m eager to get feedback, because it’s the only way I can adjust my behavior.”

Appreciation vs. feedback

Feedback is the key here, said Sheila Heen, co-founder of Triad Consulting and co-author of “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” and “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.”

But most of us don’t know what we mean when we refer to the term. Instead, she said, we conflate what should really be three separate things: appreciation (I can see you — what you do matters), coaching (helping you get better through advice and mentoring) and evaluation (how you are rated or ranked against a set of standards).

When we say we want feedback, most of us desire appreciation, dread evaluation and forget about the most important part, which is the coaching.

“Although we need three kinds of feedback, we don’t need evaluations that often,” said Heen, who is also a lecturer at Harvard Law School. “Coaching, however, should be happening day in and day out. If you’re clear you’re coaching and not evaluating, it lowers the stakes.”

Because, too often, as employees, we only hear the evaluation. “It’s like getting a paper back in high school,” she said. “The first thing you do is look at the grade, not the comments on the paper. The evaluation tends to drown out everything else.”

In an article that appeared last year in The International Journal of Business Communication, Graham L Bradley, an associate professor of psychology at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and his co-author outlined some major elements of giving appropriate feedback. They range from preparing ahead of time to keeping records of the conversation.

Difficult conversations

Taylor Johnson, a business plan expert, recalled when he was managing four employees and one of them apparently received some rather pungent perfume for her birthday. Her co-workers didn’t like it at all.

“I began to receive daily complaints and requests not to work beside this particular employee,” said Johnson, a business plan expert who was then managing four employees. “They grumbled that the smell was distracting and was affecting their job performance. When the other employees started to crack jokes about it, I recognized that the issue was getting out of hand.”

So he called in the woman and broached the subject. “Admittedly, the conversation was quite awkward and embarrassing for the both of us,” he said.
Johnson was lucky. “A week after our conversation, the embarrassment, along with the smell, had dissipated.”

Because even when a manager does everything right, there’s no guarantee the worker will hear what is being said. For this reason, Nancy Alarcon, clinic director and senior lecturer on adult speech-language disorders at the University of Washington, said it was crucial to make sure, as much as possible, that you are both on the same page at the end of the talk.

Alarcon has written and taught on the subject and oversees subordinates and colleagues, with whom she has had conversations “about everything from body hair to body odor.”

At the end of such talks, “I try to revisit some key points and write them down. I also say, ‘Why don’t you recast that for me one more time,’ and ‘What are we going to have to work on next or what do we have to do to effect the change needed?’”

The idea is not only to make sure the message is clearly understood, she said, but that the student or employee has some ownership of the issue.

If you don’t receive, ask

Employees also have to learn the need to solicit feedback. Most of us would rather float along with the idea that no news is good news. The trouble is, it may turn out that no news is bad news, but we won’t know that until it’s too late.

So, scary as it may feel, approach your boss for some suggestions about your work between the annual reviews. But don’t couch it in general terms, such as “How am I doing?” Or “I was wondering if you have any thoughts on my work,” which is unlikely to generate anything useful, Heen said. Rather, ask, ‘What’s the one thing I’m doing or failing to do that’s getting in my way?'” Or request that your supervisor think about what specific change could be made to improve your work.

Initiating or being on the receiving end of a difficult conversation is never easy. “I still make mistakes,” Heen said, “I don’t think there’s any way to get rid of the pain or defensiveness. But we can get better at understanding our reactions so we can move on faster to finding the value.”