The Knowledge: Managing personal conversations with staff

Few employers relish difficult conversations with employees. But a few simple techniques can make things go more smoothly, says Tim Gibson

Okay. So you’ve reached a management position. But alongside the perks of being in charge, there’s also the occasional downside.

Sometimes, you’ll take the flak on behalf of your team. Occasionally, you’ll have to stay late while everyone else heads home. And every so often, one of your staff will take you to one side and ask if they can have a chat about a sensitive issue.

Maybe they are unwell, or their marriage is going through a rough patch. They could have money troubles. Or perhaps they simply need to get some frustrations off their chest.

Whatever the topic, you need to know how to respond. Because it’s all too easy to duck tricky conversations. And that’s no way to get the best out of your people.

Fortunately, it is easy to conduct such conversations in a helpful manner, while retaining your professional integrity. Just follow the advice below, and you’ll soon have another skill in your management toolkit: listening. It’s pretty much the most important one you can develop. 


1) Find the right moment

If you’re rushing to meet a deadline, you may not be in the best frame of mind to listen sensitively to your colleague’s concerns. So if it’s possible, try to schedule in your chat at a time when you can give it your full attention.

Of course, some conversations are not easy to plan. By their nature, they happen off the cuff, or in an emergency. Here, the trick is to make sure you’re not distracted, even if that involves making a quick call to seek help for the task at hand, or delay its completion.

“No one minds if you take a quick moment to balance your priorities,” says Peter Foy, a director at Just Recruitment Group Ltd and a Church of England priest with many years of experience in pastoral care. “Better that than worry about your own stuff when you need to be listening to someone else’s concerns.”


2) Find a quiet corner

It’s unlikely that your team member will want to discuss their marriage problems over lunch in the staff canteen, or while hovering at the water cooler. In fact, they may well feel self-conscious talking in any environment where they think colleagues could listen in or watch them.

That makes it important to find an appropriate spot for a confidential conversation, while ensuring you meet appropriate safeguarding standards. A staff quiet room can be good, or a busy café in town where there’s enough hubbub that you can retain a degree of anonymity.

Another good tip is to head out for a walk, or find something else to focus on while you chat. This works especially well with men, who often find it difficult to talk about personal issues. Get them to help you change a windscreen wiper on your car or build a set of bookshelves, and you may find they open up.


3) Two ears, one mouth

“The most important thing you can do in any pastoral situation is keep quiet,” says Mr Foy. “It’s all too easy to fill awkward silences by chattering away, or jump to offer advice. But the chances are your colleague simply wants to get some things off their chest. You need to create the space for that to happen.

“Ask open questions that invite detailed responses,” he continues, “and be sure to make eye contact and encourage further reflections by nodding, smiling or making appropriate noises of affirmation or empathy. This conversation is about them, not you. Sometimes, keeping quiet is the best expression of understanding and support you can offer.”

Obviously, there may be some information you have to impart. If a team member tells you they are unwell and need time off for treatment, for example, you’ll have to discuss appropriate arrangements. But all this should come after you’ve listened attentively to what they say. It’s very important that people are heard when they are feeling vulnerable. If not, they quickly become disempowered, which exacerbates their insecurity and worry.


4) Be clear about your responsibilities

If a staff member simply wants to share some personal information that won’t have an impact on their work, the contents of your conversation may well remain between the two of you. And, incidentally, it’s entirely up to you whether you want to be the sort of boss who is willing to have such conversations with their team.

In circumstances where the information they share requires action from you, it is important to be up front about what happens next.

“Say a colleague admits to stealing from the company,” says Mr Foy. “In these circumstances, you’re duty bound to escalate the issue, and you should be completely clear about that.

“As another example, if they tell you about a disability for which they require an adjustment to their working environment, you will probably have to share details with other people in the organisation. Again, it’s important to make this clear, so they don’t feel as if you’re breaching any confidences.

“On the flipside, if they admit to an extramarital affair or a crush on a colleague, you may be able to keep it between yourselves. You need to judge what’s appropriate, but as a general rule, always tell your conversation partner what you’ll do with their information. Honesty is the best policy in this regard.”


5) Pay attention to people – but don’t pry

Everyone knows that good management involves attentiveness to your team. You need to spot when someone seems unhappy or demotivated, and act accordingly.

If you spend time getting to know your team, you should find that you can detect when things aren’t going well for them. Then, you can initiate a conversation, rather than dealing reactively when they choose to share with you.

“Of course, not everyone will be forthcoming about what’s going on in their lives, and you should resist the urge to press them for more information than they are prepared to share,” concludes Mr Foy. “But if you cultivate the right relationships with your staff, they should view you as approachable, trustworthy and supportive. And that’s exactly why they’ll be happy to speak with you and ask for your help when things aren’t quite going their way.”


© 2016 Just Recruitment Group Ltd. 


Posted on Monday Dec 19