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Performance Management - Handling Difficult Conversations

How to provide difficult or negative feedback to employees

Handling difficult conversations

Many managers find it difficult to provide negative feedback – to criticize their subordinates – especially in a formal or semi-formal meeting. They worry in case the employee reacts badly and an unpleasant situation arises.

Minimizing the problem

This problem can be minimized if the steps given below are followed by managers before and during a feedback or review meeting:

  1. Keep in touch with the members of their team. If they see that managers are approachable and ready to listen they are more likely to come to you with their problems. It is far better to nip the problems in the bud, wherever possible, rather than waiting for them to become more entrenched or complicated.
  2. Get to know each individual in order to anticipate possible behaviour.
  3. Do not wait until a formal review meeting. They should have a quiet word at the first sign something is going wrong.
  4. If they have to hold a formal meeting, get the facts in advance – what happened, when and why?
  5. Plan the meeting on the basis of the facts and what they know about the individual. Define what they want to achieve.
  6. Set the right tone from the start of the meeting – adopt a calm, measured, deliberate but friendly approach.
  7. Begin the conversation by explaining the purpose and structure of the meeting, indicating to the individual what the issue is, using their knowledge of the situation and giving specific examples.
  8. Focus on the issue and not the person.
  9. Ask for an explanation. Ask unloaded questions to clarify the issues and explore them together.
  10. Listen to what the individual has to say – he or she may need to let off steam.
  11. Keep an open mind and don’t jump to conclusions.
  12. Acknowledge the individual’s position and any mitigating circumstances.
  13. If new evidence emerges, adjourn the meeting if this feels appropriate.
  14. Ask the employee for proposals to resolve the situation, discuss the options and if possible agree on action by the individual, the manager or jointly.
  15. If agreement cannot be reached, managers may have to define the way forward, with reasons – they are in charge!


Dealing with difficult situations

With the best will in the world you may get a negative reaction from an individual – ranging from sullen silence to open hostility, even rage. To deal with this sort of difficult situation managers should adopt the approach set out below.

  1. Maintain control of the meeting.
  2. Put clear boundaries in place and ensure that the conversation keeps within them.
  3. Remain calm at all times – never respond to anger with anger.
  4. Use questioning techniques to clarify the facts.
  5. Be firm and restate their position as necessary.
  6. Decide what tactics are working and if they need to change their approach. Know when to expand a conversation by seeking clarification and gaining understanding and when to restrict it.
  7. Decide if and when they need to adjourn for a break to allow either party to consider their position or to cool things down.
  8. Stay clear of emotive language and don’t respond to manipulative behaviour.
  9. Allow people to have their say and listen to them, but make it clear that rudeness or any other form of unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. Terminate the meeting before things get out of hand.
  10. If, in spite of the facts, the individual is in denial, restate the evidence, indicate what happens next (possibly another meeting after a cooling off period) and close the meeting.

About the author:  

Michael Armstrong is the UK's bestselling author of Human Resource Management books including Armstrong's Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice, Armstrong's Handbook of Performance Management, Armstrong's Job Evaluation Handbook and several other titles published by Kogan Page. His books have sold over a million copies and have been translated into twenty-one languages. Michael Armstrong is a Companion and former Chief Examiner of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a managing partner of E-Reward and an independent management consultant. Prior to this he was an HR director of a publishing compan


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Armstrong's Handbook of Performance Management (9780749481209)