As a leader, you’ll inevitably need to have difficult conversations with employees. Whether their performance isn’t meeting expectations, or they’re involved in a conflict with another team member, addressing behavior that needs to be changed can feel awkward and uncomfortable. But by leveraging effective leadership techniques, you can navigate these conversations constructively.

This article outlines strategies to communicate with the directness and compassion necessary to achieve the outcome you want.

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When it comes to difficult conversations, knowing the approaches that don’t work is as important as knowing the ones that do. The three approaches below are usually ineffective, leading to unchanged behavior at best and high employee turnover at worst.

1.  Avoidance. It may be tempting to put off a difficult conversation hoping the issue will resolve itself. But employees won’t know how to fix a problem if they don’t know it exists.

2.  Downplaying. Some leaders attempt to minimize the seriousness of the issue to soften the blow. But this approach can lead to confusion and prevent meaningful change.

3.  Bluntness. While you’ll want to be direct in communicating issues, an overly aggressive confrontation can make your employee feel attacked, putting them on the defensive and making them less open to solutions.


To effectively navigate difficult conversations, a strategic approach is best. Think of the conversation as a project – one that requires proper planning and execution to succeed. Then, infuse this strategic approach with compassion, active listening, and other interpersonal leadership skills.

We break this approach down into three steps below.


Most projects begin with research and preparation, and a difficult conversation is no different. Use these tips to lay the groundwork for a productive conversation:

  • Gather examples of the behavior you want to address. The purpose here isn’t to present evidence as if the employee were on trial, but to ensure the employee will have a clear understanding of the changes they need to make.
  • Reach out to the employee directly and schedule a conversation with them. The timing of this message will require balance – while you’ll want to give the employee time to prepare, vague calendar invites can cause undue anxiety.
  • Create the right physical conditions if the conversation will be in person. Ideally, you’ll want to find a quiet, private space with minimal distractions.
  • Check your mindset before the employee arrives. If you begin the conversation anticipating success, you’ll likely find it comes more easily.


Throughout the conversation, you’ll want to be direct enough that the employee understands what they’re being asked to change while being compassionate enough that the employee feels supported. Maintain this approach throughout the following progression:

  • Begin the conversation by stating the reason for your meeting – avoid the temptation to beat around the bush.  Set expectations by communicating that your goal is for both parties to understand the issue and clearly define a path forward. Acknowledge that the feedback you’re giving may be difficult for the employee to receive, and that you’re here for collaboration and support.
  • Present the employee with your concerns, sharing the examples you’ve gathered and explaining why the behavior doesn’t align with your expectations. Maintain a calm, unemotional demeanor—noting that here, “unemotional” doesn’t mean cold and detached, but rather that you shouldn’t allow anger or frustration to dictate your delivery. Focus on the employee’s actions and behaviors instead of broad personal characteristics. For instance, you might say, “Some team members have expressed that your feedback isn’t constructive,” rather than “You’re too aggressive.”
  • Invite the employee to respond, encouraging them to ask questions and present their “side of the story.” Employ active listening throughout and keep an open mind – you may gain a new perspective of the situation and uncover alternative solutions. For instance, by listening to your employee’s experience, you may realize that their underperformance stems from a lack of adequate training.
  • Respond to the employee by summarizing what you’ve heard and by asking additional questions. You might say, “It sounds like you feel that you don’t have the resources you need to be confident in completing this project. Would additional training be helpful for you?”


The most important part of navigating a difficult conversation is that both parties walk away with a clear understanding of next steps. To ensure an aligned path forward, include the following in the closing section of your conversation:

  • Obtain verbal acknowledgement from the employee that they understand the problem you’ve addressed and recognize the need for change.
  • Brainstorm potential solutions with the employee. Keep in mind that everyone learns differently, and the approaches that will work best for them may be different than the ones that would work best for you.
  • Set a clear goal or expectation for the change along with a realistic timeline. For instance, you might say, “By the start of the next quarter I’d like you to be meeting this metric.” If you’re discussing an interpersonal conflict, determine what changes each party will make going forward, and set a time to meet again to discuss progress.
  • End the conversation on a positive note by bringing up specific things the employee does well. By doing this, you’ll remind them of their value to the team and emphasize your desire for their success.


While correcting behavior and managing conflict is never easy, knowing how to navigate difficult conversations is a critical leadership skill that will result in a more peaceful and productive workplace.

The best way to minimize the need for difficult conversations is to hire individuals whose interpersonal behavior matches your team’s culture and expectations. Partner with Superior Staffing to find the top performers you need for assignments, projects or direct hire.