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How to handle difficult work conversations

How to handle difficult work conversations

Conveying bad news is part of every manager’s job. It comes with territory. The problem is that many managers are not skilled at doing it.

Experts say preparation is the key to turning a difficult conversation into a successful one.  Yesterday, LeadingCompany looked at preparing for the emotional side of this grim task of leadership (see the story here).

Today we look at the practical skills, preparation and experience that make the process run smoothly and help both leaders and their companies recover fast and get on with business.

Many leaders fall into management jobs because they are outstanding operational or technical experts in their field. They managed projects, not people – a completely different skill set. Having tough conversations requires certain skills you don’t pick up automatically when you become a manager.

The experts, many of whom have had to do it themselves, told LeadingCompany delivering bad news is a skill that can be learned.

The Australian Institute of Management, for example, offers a course on difficult conversations. It’s highly sought after.

AIM chief executive officer, Susan Heron, knows a lot about these sorts of conversations. Before she joined the AIM, she worked in the banking sector in various senior roles at ANZ, Westpac and Rothschild, roles that included having demanding conversations. But, she says, it’s just part of the job.

Heron says: “The ability to have a difficult conversation and the necessity to have the skill to have that difficult conversation is a fundamental requirement for management.  It’s not an option. You have to be able to do this.”

Face to face

The challenge for managers now is whether conversational skills are now being undermined by the avalanche of electronic communication that takes over a manager’s working life. There have been instances where it took over face-to-face conversation. Sydney retailer Modestie Boutique last year, for example, was fined $10,000 by Fair Work Australia for sacking an employee by text message.

Heron says nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. “People might talk about the tyranny of distance or time, but you know what? Make the effort,’’ she says. “You can’t delegate this type of conversation to technology. It’s about respect, courtesy and a message to the rest of your staff about how you value them.

“The conversations are unpleasant, horrible and if you are having them, you should never ever undertake them lightly. You should never do it easily. It should never be easy to anyone.

“It’s a non-negotiable; it’s an essential skill. Managers have to be skilled and they have to be trained how to do it because, quite frankly, it’s a poor message to the rest of your staff if you cannot give the person the respect and courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. “