Conversations on poor performance, outcomes, or conduct may not seem like a big deal until it's your turn as a manager to initiate one. And textbook advice on how to have these conversations is just not helpful. Invoking the Nike tagline and telling someone to "just do it" ignores the real concern and anxiety that comes with delivering bad news.

Nevertheless, these are among the most important conversations we have at work. The better you with difficult communication, the better you are at your job. This is especially true for managers. In fact, your skill and willingness to address conflict directly make a big impression on those around you and help you to fix problems efficiently. For those good at it, an ability to manage tough conversations can be a ticket to the top.

So, how do you have these tough conversations?

First, you must acknowledge and accept that one is needed. Too often, managers let problems continue to get worse out of a reluctance to address the issue directly. Don't be that person hoping that things will just magically improve.

Next, get clear on your objective. In any difficult conversation, there are only a couple of outcomes you will want. They are:

  • For the person to stop doing something wrong or offensive
  • To start doing something they're not doing right now

In more extreme cases when the goal is to fire someone or end the relationship, your goal is simple. You must make this person understand that the relationship is over and they need to make plans to move on.

Schedule private time no more than 24 hours in advance. Know that once they get your invitation, they'll start to wonder, worry, speculate or all three. You don't want to surprise someone with a confrontation or keep them wondering for too long.

Write the basics of your message in advance. Here's a simple formula for difficult conversations.

Start or stop doing X + because it's impacting me/our business in Y way + I am here to help by providing Z.

Managing your tone is critical, and often where these conversations go off-track. Make sure the person you're talking with knows that:

  • You're assessing their behavior or performance -- not them as a person. No matter the original offense, kindness rules in your response. Any anger, judgment, or disdain will be completely obvious. More importantly, negative emotions are counterproductive and unnecessarily hurtful.
  • Your feedback is specific to this point in time and this business. All feedback is location- and time-specific.
  • You believe that people can change. If they're up for the challenge, you're here to support them by doing X, Y, or Z.

They also need to understand the consequences of not taking (or stopping) the required action. Explain how much time they have to make a correction and what will happen next if no specific, significant improvements are made.

When closing the conversation, be clear when you expect them to follow up -- or if this conversation is final, remind them that it's final. Otherwise, you'll put yourself in the position of fielding requests for additional meetings.

Just like any other kind of bad news, difficult conversations don't get easier with time. They just get harder the longer you put them off, and typically the collateral damage to your business and team continues to pile up while you're delaying and pretending it's not so that bad.

Published on: Dec 28, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.