How to have tough conversations with your employer

The relationships you form at work are in many ways similar to those you form with friends and loved ones. Sometimes you’ll get on like a house on fire, and other times you might feel like perfect strangers on a matter. It’s all part of human nature. No relationships are flawless, whether they’re friends, partners, or even co-workers.

Inevitably, there will be ups and downs – just like a longstanding relationship with a friend, you might also find that there are some times you’ll need to have tough conversations with your employer and co-workers – it’s simply part of having a career. When we take on a full-time job, we’re often signing on to spend more time with our co-workers than we get with our own families. So, learning to manage successful working relationships is crucial.

How you manage those conversations, though, is often the most complicated part. How should you react to criticisms, even if they are warranted? What should you do to prepare when your boss books a one-on-one meeting with you? Should you stand up for yourself or is it better to stay quiet for fear of being fired?

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to handle tough conversations, and your approach will be different depending on who you’re speaking to. But you can settle your own nerves and be better prepared for all outcomes by being armed with these helpful tips.

2020 changed the Australian workplace forever

2020 could almost be called the year of “tough conversations” and yet also a year of positive change for some areas of our working lives.

Some jobs were lost, some businesses shut down and even entire industries were stuck in limbo, unsure if they would ever be able to recover. No doubt there were a few tough conversations between employers and their staff in most Australian offices and workplaces.

One positive, however, has been the success of the great work-from-home experiment. Many businesses realised that they could still operate with their staff working remotely, and in many cases it meant reduced overheads and greater productivity.

While many offices were actually seeing better productivity since allowing remote work, some industries had to bend and change completely by letting go of staff, changing what they sold or produced, shifting to a “takeaway” model for traditional hospitality, or cutting their workers’ hours. Tough conversations were a big part of 2020 and many business owners and managers had to learn how to be more sensitive with their staff, and many employees experienced uncertainty or even depression during periods of lockdown and isolation.

It’s just as tough for your boss as it is for you

The pandemic aside, when you get notified that your employer wants to speak to you – whether it’s performance related or not – it’s common to get that sinking feeling in your stomach. No one enjoys having to go to those meetings, including your boss. Oftentimes they are just as stressed about having the tough conversations as you are – it’s why business experts regularly share advice to help employers get through those talks as best as possible.

This knowledge may not help alleviate that awful sinking feeling, but it can help you get a better understanding that – in most cases – your boss doesn’t want to drag you into their office just to berate you. They want to help you overcome whatever hurdles are currently in your way so you can contribute more to the company – which is good for you and them.

4 tips for managing tough conversations

So, you’re fretting about a call or in-person meeting with your employer and you’re not sure how to handle it. Maybe you know what the reason is or maybe you’re going in blind – either way, it’s important to prepare yourself mentally for all possible outcomes.

Here are some helpful ways to get ready for the tough conversation, and what to do after your employer has had their say:

  1. Prepare as best you can: If you know what the conversation will be about, then you will be able to collect any relevant documentation to help support you. But even if you’re unsure why your boss has called you in for an urgent meeting, you can prepare yourself mentally for what’s to come. It’s hard not to dwell on what might be about to happen, but practising mindfulness and speaking to your co-workers about your concerns could help reduce your stress and accept that you can’t always control a situation at work.
  2. Think about it from their perspective: Your boss isn’t having a difficult conversation with you because they have nothing better to do. On the contrary, tough talks often happen because the employer truly cares about you and how you can help the business be even more successful. Whether it’s about your performance, taking on extra duties or any other reason, try to look at it from their perspective. What do they hope to get out of this conversation? In many cases, the answer will be to support you and help you get back to peak performance at work.
  3. Be an active listener and acknowledge what they are saying: It’s easy to get defensive and want to interrupt someone who is talking about you, especially if they are making statements about your performance at work. But the only way you will get past any work-related problems is by hearing those words – however negative they may be – and acknowledging that you will try to do better in future. Active listening will also show your boss that you are truly hearing what they are saying. This will give them the confidence that you will be able to return to your duties and make the necessary improvements.
  4. Look for solutions rather than excuses: At the end of the meeting, you might feel like slinking away and never again thinking about the conversation you had with your boss. Instead, take a proactive approach – one where you accept what your boss had to say and start to find solutions to the issues raised. Excuses might make you feel better in the moment, but they won’t solve the root of the problems. A positive response to tough conversations is exactly what your boss will hope to see from you.

Difficult conversations can be had

Maintaining a healthy relationship with your employer sometimes means having difficult conversations about your role. Hopefully these tips will help you stay grounded and less stressed when it comes time to have a tough talk with your boss.

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