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Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

A Blog by Clare Davis – Workforce Development Specialist

“Addressing challenging conversations in the workplace, particularly those concerning performance or conduct, is undoubtedly a challenge. As I look back on my past management roles, if there's one aspect I would have rather avoided, it’s undoubtedly these encounters.

From the bizarre to the heartbreaking, the topics that land on a manager's plate are as diverse as they are challenging. I could share some stories that might astonish, and I am certain you could share some of your own right back. In anticipation of my upcoming “People and Performance Management” workshop, I reflect on my experiences and insights;”

Embrace your flaws; we all have them!

As a manager, you are not immune from making mistakes, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about how you handle your imperfections. Your team might not necessarily have to like you, but they must respect you, and respect is earned through transparency and accountability. One of my most memorable uncomfortable conversations, was the time I accidently triggered a dye pack in an ATM while working in retail banking, resulting in the destruction of around £127K. Looking back now, I can almost laugh, but the conversation with my Area Manager confessing to this quite terrifying error, was anything but funny. On reflection, this incident strengthened the bond between myself and my team. It showed them that I was human, they witnessed how I dealt with a challenging situation and how I took ownership, and it gave them an opportunity to support me.

It's an extreme example, and rest assured, the money was insured. However, the underlying message is clear—your team doesn't expect you to be a robot, nor should you act like one. Act with integrity and take accountability and respect will follow.

Setting Clear Expectations

One crucial aspect of effective performance management is setting clear expectations and communication from the start. Don't assume that your team knows what you want from them; communicate your expectations explicitly and role model them. A powerful method to achieve this is by setting specific goals and regularly following up on them. Clear expectations leave no room for ambiguity and performance and conduct conversations will not come as a shock to your employees if expectation has been correctly managed. I have seen lots of SME’S decide to put goals and appraisals in place because of poor conduct or performance. This is a chicken and egg situation; had the goals and appraisals already been in place, the issues possibly would not have escalated. Lay the foundation; ACAS offers valuable resources, including free appraisal templates and guides- Template letters, forms and HR documents | Acas

Nip it in the bud

Workplace conflict is likely to fester and intensify if you ignore it. As a manager, you need the skills and confidence to intervene at an early stage to nip conduct and performance in the bud before they escalate. The Pleasure Pain theory explores how we are naturally programmed to choose to act in a way that decreases pain in the short term or increases pleasure. This is why it feels so much easier to put the conversation off, or to turn a blind eye all together, because in the short turn, this approach causes you less “pain”.  Don’t beat yourself up for wanting to avoid the conversation, you are literally fighting against your natural instincts. Recognise why you feel this way and tackle the conversation anyway, I promise you that the earlier conversation will be much less “painful” than the escalated one further down the line.

Toxic Positivity

Maintaining a sunny disposition and a "glass half full" outlook on life is typically my approach, but I've come to recognise its limitations in certain situations. While positivity is often beneficial, it can inadvertently make employees feel, at best, that their opinions aren't valued, potentially silencing their voices, and at worst, perceive you as disingenuous.

Whether it's delivering difficult news, such as rejecting a job application, addressing performance concerns, managing disciplinary meetings, or announcing redundancies, the gravity of these conversations is undeniable. It's crucial to acknowledge the profound impact they will have on individuals and their livelihoods. Approaching these discussions with honesty and empathy, without sugar coating the situation, is essential.


Reflecting on my experiences, I've come to appreciate the importance of authenticity and humanity in leadership and indeed, in navigating difficult conversations. While it may be tempting to adopt a detached, clinical approach or attempt to put a “positive spin” on things, I've found that acknowledging the emotional impact on both parties, fosters trust and understanding. In essence, being honest and human forms the cornerstone of effective communication in challenging circumstances.

To conclude, remember that discomfort in difficult conversations is normal. It's okay to not like them, but it's not okay to ignore them, and you can absolutely get better at them. 

For further insights and to join the discussion; register for our upcoming workshop - People and Performance Management | GM Business Growth Hub


Discover more at our new People Power series of workshops. 
Our new ‘People Power Series’, delivered by our Workforce Development Team, gives you insight, inspiration, and direction to ignite the power of your people. Open to all Greater Manchester’s businesses, it’s a not to be missed series about powering up your business from top to bottom.  

For further insights and to join the discussion; register for our next workshop - People Power workshops

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