strategy resources

Uncomfortable conversations in the workplace

I had a conversation today about how uncomfortable managing the performance of other people is and we came to some pretty interesting points and conclusions…

(For context, this was with another practitioner.)

In South Africa, we generally tend to have quite a “people pleasing” culture. This means that many uncomfortable conversations are avoided. There’s a general fear of talking about “controversial” topics, whether that be vaccination policies, sexual harassment, racism and sexism. (Disclaimer: I acknowledge that this doesn’t happen everywhere, but it does exist in many pockets of our society).

“Let’s talk about sex in the workplace.”

I’m not going to talk about that. I said that to make the point. But, I imagine your eyes went wide, you’re already cringing and wanting to avoid the topic or on the edge of your curious seat wanting to see how this unfolds.

So, seeing as we already have it engrained in us to feel uncomfortable about difficult topics, no matter what they are, it’s very uncomfortable to have a hard conversation with someone about how they’re performing at work.

The simple reason is that we don’t want to offend them, hurt their feelings or say the wrong thing, which are all noble intentions. But, you can’t have positive accountability and real development without a bit of discomfort and vulnerability. You also can’t expect the other person to truly learn or change if you aren’t direct with them about what they’re doing wrong and/or what they need to improve.

You can’t expect them to take accountability if you’re not willing to have these uncomfortable conversations.

So, if you find a performance review with a poor performer to be exceptionally uncomfortable, then here’s one thing to keep in mind: accept that it’s going to be uncomfortable.

But, just because you’re having an uncomfortable conversation doesn’t mean you can’t be compassionate. Discuss the person’s behaviour and not the person’s character or traits.

E.g. “Your pattern of arriving to meetings late is becoming an issue for how effectively we can work together.” Not “you need to fix your tardiness.”

Hold the person accountable for their BEHAVIOUR and accept that the conversation will be uncomfortable. Then go in with the mindset that both of you want to come to the best solution that benefits everyone involved (which everyone really does want when they’re out of fight/flight mode).

(You’ll also be pleasantly surprised that it’s less uncomfortable than you imagined)