Manager and employee having difficult discussion

I’ll Do it Later could be the theme song of procrastinators everywhere. It could also be the mantra of people managers who are called on to have difficult conversations with employees. Why? Because those uncomfortable interactions are among the last things that most managers want to do—and the hardest part of their jobs, according to 50% of people leaders surveyed.

Nobody really wants to have difficult conversations at work—potentially uncomfortable talks about layoffs, performance issues, inappropriate behavior, or other sensitive topics. Research has found that 70% of employees avoid difficult discussions with others, whether peers, managers, or direct reports. Indeed, only 24% of employees report directly confronting challenging situations; 53% deal with difficult circumstances by ignoring them. 

Among managers and workers who choose procrastination over outright avoidance, 34% say that they’ve delayed difficult conversations for a month or more; 25% say they’ve put them off a year or longer.

6 Reasons Managers Procrastinate Difficult Conversations

Few of us willingly choose to confront conflict or unpleasantness directly. Managers are no exception, even when they know they must take action to resolve problems that threaten work outcomes, such as addressing disagreements about job duties or troubled relationships with co-workers.

Atana research done prior to the development of our upcoming Uncomfortable Conversations course showed how managers rate the following potential barriers to initiating an uncomfortable conversation:

  1. Feeling hypocritical – 74% agreed it is harder to address an uncomfortable issue if they themselves have done something similar in the past.
  2. Nervous feelings – 63% agreed that feeling nervous makes it more difficult to initiate an uncomfortable conversation with a direct report.​
  3. Time - 36% felt they might not have time to have a timely conversation if needed.
  4. Employee response – 32% felt their direct reports typically do not handle feedback well. Anticipating that an employee would respond negatively (defensive, emotional, upset) made it more difficult to have the sensitive conversation.​
  5. Potential to create conflict – 22% agreed that addressing uncomfortable issues results in more conflict.​
  6. Culture of silence – 21% felt there was a culture of silence around uncomfortable issues where they work.

Managers may tell themselves that speaking up could hurt employees’ feelings. Or they may fear confronting employees who could react badly. Others put off difficult conversations because they don’t know how to approach them—perhaps they’ve not engaged in such discussions before, lack needed communication skills, or they’ve failed in past attempts and don’t want to repeat mistakes.

Clearly, the reasons managers shun challenging interactions are varied. And frankly, the news isn’t that great for those who do bring themselves to have difficult conversations with their direct reports. One study found that just 46% of employees said such talks with their managers left them feeling satisfied, while 39% described themselves as dissatisfied.

The Consequences of Not Having Difficult Conversations

Despite their trepidation, most managers understand that failure to have difficult conversations can result in negative outcomes that far exceed the short-term discomfort of talking about sensitive topics.

Harm to organizational culture may be the greatest danger. Holding employees responsible for bad behavior is a leading reason for uncomfortable conversations, but it’s a pillar of positive cultures. When managers avoid those talks, bad behavior goes unchecked, and accountability is compromised. Both managers and employees can experience emotional tolls. The culture suffers, perhaps growing disrespectful, even toxic. In turn, unaddressed problems continue, work deteriorates, engagement declines, and turnover increases.



7 Lost Workdays

Estimated business impact of every difficult conversation that is not held.

Researchers quantified the business effects, attributing a cost of $7,500 and seven lost workdays for every difficult conversation that is not held.

The implications are sobering. But not inevitable. None of those negatives have to happen. Managers can—and want to—learn how to plan and conduct difficult conversations with assurance, empathy, and effectiveness. 

Through our Uncomfortable Conversations training and existing respectful workplace courses, Atana teaches managers to confidently carry out challenging discussions that drive constructive behavior change and strengthen accountability, performance, organizational culture, employee (and manager) well-being, and business outcomes.  

Contact us today for recommendations on how we can help your organization.


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.