Manager and employee having serious conversation

Can we talk?

Those three words may be among the most intimidating in the English language because they often signal that whatever comes next isn’t likely to be something we want to hear. Or, if we’re the speakers of those words, it may mean that we’re about to open a conversation that could be challenging or even unpleasant.

For managers, difficult conversations come with the territory.

In the workplace, difficult conversations involve sensitive subjects that could cause discomfort or conflict. They are among the most daunting and nerve-wracking job expectations of people managers. And those discussions can come in many forms. Five of the most commonly encountered and potentially uncomfortable interactions—that most managers would rather avoid—involve addressing:

  1. Layoffs or other dismissals
  2. Poor or substandard performance
  3. Unethical behavior, such as cheating, stealing, or being untruthful
  4. Personal issues that require attention, such as poor hygiene or unacceptable attire
  5. Inappropriate conduct, such as discrimination or sexual harassment

While many managers would prefer to sidestep those five issues, and other difficult topics that arise at work, the fact is that such communication challenges consistently occur. So the likelihood is that managers will be called on to handle some or all of them during their careers. No wonder that research has found 69% of managers admitting that they feel uncomfortable even talking directly with employees. And one study found 50% of managers citing difficult conversations as the greatest challenge of their role.

of managers cite difficult conversations as the greatest challenge of their role.

Nonetheless, good communication is a skill expected of people leaders, and the ability to have those challenging conversations successfully is a critical driver of workplace respect, employee engagement and retention, individual and team performance, and enterprise business results.

That extensive influence means that managers who procrastinate or avoid holding difficult conversations with employees can create significant damage that resonates far beyond the individuals immediately involved. For example, three quarters of U.S. workers say that managers are responsible for overall organizational culture, yet 36% add that their managers don’t know how to lead effectively. 

In organizations where employees describe the culture as toxic and disrespectful, more than 81% of workers say they’ve witnessed their manager letting bad behavior by other employees go unaddressed. Even in companies with average cultures, nearly two-thirds of employees say that managers let individuals get away with bad behavior. And according to 62% of employees seeking new jobs, that refusal by managers to hold others accountable for misconduct drove their decision to leave their employers. 

It's no wonder that 57% of American workers say their managers need training, and 41% cite training in communication skills specifically.

In the coming year, many talent leaders plan to drive stronger development for frontline managers. Manager training from Atana that’s designed to take the discomfort out of difficult conversations offers a valuable place to start. By teaching managers how to initiate necessary discussions confidently, approach problems with empathy and objectivity, and focus on solutions that support both individuals and the business, Atana training empowers managers and sets them up for success. 

Recommended Training

Uncomfortable Conversations

Workplace communication training for managers.

Highly-engaging, this course teaches managers how to confidently navigate difficult conversations with direct reports.
See course details.

 Here's a sample clip from the course.