Difficult Conversations – Dealing with awkward personal issues


What makes a conversation difficult?

Each conversation is unique, but there are often common reasons why they are difficult.  These common reasons include:

  • Human nature – I always try to avoid conflict
  • Embarrassment – I don’t like awkward situations
  • It might all go wrong – I could end up with a g
    rievance or worse
  • It might become emotional – I can’t deal with  tears
  • It will take too long – Isn’t it HR or someone else’s job anyway?

What should I do if the employee raises embarrassing or awkward personal issues?

Sometimes you may start a difficult conversation with an employee about one issue and a whole host of other issues surface.  This happens most commonly  in a capability or disciplinary conversation.

Personal issues may be raised in mitigation of the employee’s poor performance.

Personal issues can be very wide ranging, from alcoholism to divorce, from drug dependency to cross dressing. How should you as a manager react if something awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable is raised in the difficult conversation?

Stay calm, listen to what the employee is saying and acknowledge that you have heard what they have said.  You do not need to agree with what the employee is saying but you  do need to listen in case what they are saying is relevant to matters discussed.

Being aware of your equality responsibilites can be helpful as sometimes the embarrasing issue may be an indicator of an underlying protected characteristic.

Whatever is raised you need to give it due consideration in determine whether it is relevant to the matter in hand.  Occasionally personal issues are raised as a smoke screen to allow the employee to aviod facing up to the fact that they are not meeting expectations.

More often than not, these personal issues are relevant.  Where an issue affects their performance at work you need to consider it.  It may  may not influence your decision but you need to include it in your deliberations

Always ensure that you:

  • Document the meeting as soon as it is over
  • Ideally have a witness present at the meeting to be an independent pair of eyes observing proceedings
  • Prepare well.  Have all the information you need to hand, consider the likely responses you will encounter and how you might react.
  • Be clear on the outcome that you want to achieve from the meeting.  This will enable you to be better able to manage your reaction to events as they unfold

If you would like to know

  • What can go wrong?
  • How you ensure your message is heard and accepted?
  • How you can reduce the risk of things going wrong?

Read our Difficult conversations Blog


Deal with matters as they arise, don’t leave until they become a problem

Approach issues on an informal basis first

Prepare well, gather evidence, articulate key points, devise questions & responses

Ensure you document the conversation in case matters are not concluded

Be prepared to adjourn and continue the conversation at another time, place or with expert help alongside you

Be prepared for the unexpected!


Team Dynamics

Team Dynamics are how individuals within a group or team interact with each other.

The phrase was coined by Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist and change management expert in the early 1940s.  He observed that individuals in a team often take on particular roles and behaviours (See also Belbin’s work on team roles).  He defined Team Dynamics as the effect of these roles and behaviours  on the other team members and the team as a whole.

A team with a positive dynamic is very easy to spot.  There are high levels of trust, there are collective decisions, there are clear accountabilities defined and the team hold each other to account.  These teams tend to be very creative.

Poor team dynamics are demonstrated by disruptive behaviour within the team, poor decisions or a lack of of decision making and a lower propensity to be creative.

What Causes Poor Team Dynamics? group, poor decisions or lack of decision making and a lower propensity for creativity.

Negative team dynamics can be created by any of the team members, including the team leader.  Some of the most common problems that occur include:

  • Lack of leadership: without a strong leader, a more dominant member of the team may take charge. This can have many effects including infighting, change of focus or a  lack of direction.
  • Blocking: when the behaviours in the team disrupt the flow of information. These behaviours are driven by individuals adopting blocking roles such as:
    • The aggressor who continually disagrees with others, or is inappropriately outspoken.
    • The critic who is constantly critical of others’ ideas.
    • The withdrawer who doesn’t participate in the discussion.
    • The recognition seeker the boastful individual who dominates the session.
    • The joker who introduces humour inappropriately.
  • Groupthink:  when a desire for consensus exceeds the desire to reach the right decision.  This is often referred to as the Abilene Paradox. This prevents people from fully exploring alternative solutions.
  • Excessive deference to authority: this can happen when there is a very dominant leader with whom the rest of the team want to be seen to agree.  This leads team members holding back from expressing their own opinions which in turn can lead to the best solution not being adopted
  • Free riding: when some team members start to coast, and leave their colleagues to do all the work. Sometimes these free riders can work very hard on their own, but do not contribute to team situations; this is known as “social loafing.”
  • Evaluation apprehension: when people feel that they are being judged by other team members, and hold back their opinions as a result.

How can you improve Team Dynamics? 

Know your team You need to guide the development of your team, helping them progress through Tuckman’s stages of team development.  Understanding that progression through these stages is part of the process of developing an effective team will improve your team dynamics.Using Belbin’s Team Roles can help you understand the value that each person brings to the team, and help you deal with potential problems early.
Tackle problems quickly Nipping problems in the bud is the key here.  If you notice inappropriate behaviour act quickly to challenge it.  Give effective feedback to ensure the team member understands the impact of their actions, and to enable them to change their behaviour
Define Roles and Responsibilities Without focus or direction poor team dynamics quickly emerge.  Use RACI or a similar tool to help you clarify Responsibilities, Accountabilities Consult and Inform requirements early on.  Hold people to account
Break down barriers Ensure that attention is paid to the forming stage both at the outset and if new members join.  Team building exercises or using the Johari Window model can be very useful here
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate Communication is vital to effective team dynamics.  When you define the roles and responsibilities ensure that the Consult and Inform are also defined clearly and stick to it.  If you need to make an announcement let all the team know as quickly as possible to ensure all have the same information
Pay Attention Be continually aware of the signs of poor team dynamics and take action as soon as you spot them