Courageous Conversations: Dealing with difficult employees

Dealing with difficult employees

As a new manager, the inevitable has occurred: the need to give someone a telling off. Being confrontational is not a natural strength of mine, even if I do remember a thing or two from an early stint in the Army. Learning techniques on how to successfully deal with difficult staff, and having that ‘courageous conversation’ has been invaluable.

So realising confrontation is perhaps not my strongest skill (and having fumbled through a couple of confrontational encounters with one or two team members), I decided that I needed to prepare better for these events.

Like all management issues, there’s a wealth of opinions, research and conflicting information out there. As always, knowing what works and what doesn’t is the true challenge in researching practical management.

Who are difficult employees? has a pretty useful article on dealing with difficult employees through a 5 step process by Dr David Gravitch (5  steps to dealing with difficult employees). One of the opening paragraphs particularly caught my attention by pretty much describing one particular member of my team:

It seems that some people are just born to be difficult. We have all worked with them and most of us dislike them. Difficult people are easy to recognize–they show up late, leave early, don’t turn their work in on time and have an excuse for every failing.

Wait, there’s more. These difficult people harass you and others, ask too many self-explanatory questions, neglect details, distract you and repeatedly challenge you and others. Even worse, when they interact with customers, vendors and people lower than them on the corporate hierarchy, they can be grouchy, impolite, condescending, uninformed, misleading, inappropriate or simply wrong. Do you know anyone like this?

Dr David Gravitch, 2009

Don’t we all Dr Gravitch?!

The five steps suggested by Dr Gravitch are:

  1. Don’t ignore the problem
  2. Intervene as soon as possible
  3. Research the problem properly (and confront the individual, giving them the opportunity to respond)
  4. Help the problematic employee get back on track
  5. If all else fails, termination may be necessary

It’s a useful list to work through, however, I know I struggle at point three – having the time to properly research the problem, and to actually confront the difficult employee can be a challenge for many of us. So how exactly do you do this?

What are ‘courageous conversations’?

In researching approaches and ways of successfully confronting that difficult member of staff, the phrase ‘Courageous Conversations’ popped up time and time again, appearing the be the management buzz phrase for this particular issue.

What a terrible euphemism…

A article: Is it time to have a courageous conversation?’ by Margie Warrell describes 10 principles that one might want to adopt when the time is right to open up and tell someone what is really on your mind. Margie’s article isn’t aimed specifically at managers, rather at anyone who needs to have that conversation. It’s useful as general guidance and there’s plenty to think about. One particular piece of advice struck home and helped me realise that maybe I could do with something a little more prescriptive and practical in my preparations…

Rehearsing the conversation ahead of time, writing down the key points you want to convey (in case emotions start to hijack your brain) and how you will respond constructively to whatever accusations, grievances or upsets may be bought up.

Margie Warrell, 2012

It just so happened that I mustn’t have been the only manager seeking support on this issue within my organisation (perhaps a sign of the ‘austerity times’), as I heard about a training course my organisation had funded on Courageous Conversations through Performance Coaching International. Needless to say, I signed up immediately. The weblink to the PCI Courageous Conversations training is here, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone that has recognised a development issue for themselves, or for their own subordinate managers and team leaders.

The day long training was incredibly engaging and at times, even a little physical. It covered a wide range of elements, including: body language, communications, reasons for under-performance, motivation and dealing with strong emotions like crying. At the end of the day I felt I had both learnt a great deal and felt near enough ready to apply that knowledge in the big wide world, showing nothing beats good quality classroom training for getting the point across effectively.

The 6 stage technique for courageous conversations

One of the most useful lessons I learnt on the Courageous Conversations training focused on a six stage framework for the practicalities of having that conversation that Dr Gravitch alluded to in his third point above.

The first 4 stages below guides the user through  the stages of a (hopefully) successful conversation:

  • Stage 1: Establish the context – being as factual as possible, stating precisely what the problem is backed up by examples based on facts, and no way opinion which could lead to an unwanted argument. Provide the least amount of ‘wriggle room’ as possible.
  • Stage 2: Highlight the consequences – on what the impact of the issue is for the organisation, for the team and then for the individual.
  • Stage 3: Provide clarity about your feelings – what is the impact on you and the team? What have you done to exacerbate the situation?
  • Stage 4: Explain what changes you want – be clear about the change you want to happen and the difference you are looking for. What is your end goal and the consequences of that change.

The fifth and sixth stages are probably the most practically useful:

  • Stage 5: Prepare a 1 minute introduction – Write down exactly what you want to say, word for word, for the above 4 stages and learn it. Use it to maintain focus, avoid getting distracted and being as clear and concise as possible.
  • Stage 6: Practice the 1 minute introduction – Practice! Speak it out loud to yourself and learn it by heart. Know what you want to say and how you want to say it. It’s better to know what it’s going to sound like before you say during your courageous conversation.

This approach has been very useful, especially the early points about being extremely factual and basing accusations on truths and avoiding opinions. There was much more that went into the training, such as: timings, how to deal with someone who remains difficult, dealing with crying and deflecting, even mannerisms and choice of words (never use ‘but’, and never give them excuses). The advice is nearly exactly the same as that given on the website which goes into more detail if you haven’t access to the Performance Coaching International training.

One of the main points from the training is: preparation is everything. Making it up as you go along will only get you into difficulties.

I don’t think we could possibly claim this approach would work every time, there are so many differing situations and personalities; it’s a useful starting point though.


I put this into practice for the first time a few weeks ago with a particularly difficult and ‘squirmy’ member of staff over two work related complaints in a short period of time. I knew it was going to be a difficult conversation and I followed the technique point by point. Although all manner of defensive and deflective techniques were deployed, at the end of the encounter I got what I wanted and I felt so much better than on previous ‘difficult conversations’.

Difficult employees? Prepare for battle…

There’s certainly more to learn and practice. I’m often learning as I go along, picking up pointers where I can and adding them to my experiences and personal knowledge bank. I’m learning the benefits of recording interactions with difficult staff and the importance of confirming comments and delegated points through email, as onerous as it may be. Also getting to know the organisation’s performance management and disciplinary processes has also been absolutely invaluable. Further pointers and suggestions are always welcome!


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