From Both Sides: How to Discuss a Difficult Issue
Managers and employees alike fear conflict. In most offices, conflict is actively avoided — if not ignored — until the issue absolutely needs to be addressed. This approach does not create a healthy work environment, and can stunt employee confidence and creativity.
Conflict is healthy when it leads to open discussions and solutions, but both parties need to be ready to make the situation better. Employees need to feel comfortable broaching issues and employers need to listen.
Here’s the perspective from both sides, so managers and employees can see how they each approach difficult conversations.
Managers: Your Employees Are Afraid to Provide Feedback
Even if you tell your employees that you care about their ideas and feedback, they likely won’t feel comfortable coming to you for everything. A VitalSmarts study found that only one percent of employees feel extremely confident voicing concerns in crucial moments. The vast majority of the workforce gets nervous approaching a manager, or remains silent in the face of a problem.
This can significantly affect your bottom line. More than half of respondents say they tend to waste seven days or more putting off difficult conversations, costing the organization an average of $7,500 in lost time and resources.
In the long run, poor leadership can lead to high turnover rates as your best employees leave for greener pastures.
“The ability to engage, share feedback, and walk away feeling like their manager listened -- even if they ultimately didn't get what they wanted in the request -- is essential,” management consultant Robin Camarote writes. “Employees who are ignored or dismissed repeatedly will leave at the first opportunity.”
Understanding how your employees feel and changing your behavior to help them can improve your workplace culture and help grow your business.
Why Don’t Employees Speak Up?
There are many reasons why your employees likely aren’t sharing their opinions with you. These range from personal insecurities to your own reactions to their ideas. Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Blinds.com, says some common fears that employees have include:
They’re worried about retaliation from management or looking stupid if they don’t have all of the facts.
They don’t want to look like they’re challenging authority.
They had previous bad experiences questioning a boss — either at a previous company or while working for you.
They feel like you aren’t going to take their ideas or concerns to heart and make changes because of it.
It’s not uncommon for employees to stop providing feedback if they feel like nothing comes of it. Some managers say they want feedback and opinions, but will brush off any criticism or concerns, even when they’re presented in the best way possible.
Leadership IQ founder Mark Murphy conducted a study that found only 23 percent of employees feel like their managers always respond to their questions and concerns constructively, with 20 reporting that management occasionally addresses their concerns. However, a full 35 percent say their managers rarely or never respond to their problems constructively.
Managers, if your employees aren’t speaking up, they might think it’s not worth it because you’re not listening to them.
Managers Can Practice Receiving Feedback and Ideas
To help employees feel more comfortable expressing themselves, Susan Mazza, leadership coach and CEO of Clarus Consulting, encourages managers to create forums for team members to share their dissenting views and suggests practicing hearing feedback and constructive criticism on a regular basis.
“Start by paying attention to how you react when people share something that is anything other than predictable or positive,” she writes. “Notice how your reactions affect people’s behavior...Your job is to convince them you’ll be happiest when they speak up and tell you what they really think.”
Executive coach Dale Kurow offers advice for employers who want to show that they’re listening and take steps act on employee ideas. These include:
Do not interrupt. Wait until your team members are done talking.
Ask questions. Seek out additional details and information from team members.
Follow up. See if the changes (if any) are working.
Something as simple as letting your employees speak without feeling rushed can have a significant impact on their self confidence when talking with you.
As a manager, you might notice other benefits that come with listening to your team members. The Promise or Pay team explains that good listening can give you a mental break. Instead of trying to multitask, you focus on one thing and come up with a clear solution. In the end, listening benefits you as a leader along with your team.
Employees: Practice Providing Constructive Solutions and Ideas
While managers need to take steps to listen and create a constructive environment for their staff, employees need to respect their managers and communicate strategically. This is particularly important for important issues and difficult subjects.
Rich Moy at Muse highlights exactly why it’s imperative to speak up and address a difficult issue with your boss: no one else will do it for you. It’s common for some people to ask their co-workers to speak for them or to sit back and wait for their boss to notice a problem. If you expect this, your manager will never get the message.
The more you practice voicing your opinions and sharing your thoughts and ideas, the easier it will get. The following steps can guide you to give constructive feedback.
Bring Solutions to the Table
Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of Human Workplace, says you shouldn’t start with the question, “how do I tell this to my boss?” but rather “What change do I want, and how can I accomplish it?” Rephrasing the question this way can make the conversation more proactive and productive.
With this strategy, you can come up with a solution to pitch to your boss instead of a problem. You can also use a lead in for your goals to start a delicate conversation without frustrating your boss. Either way, the goal for both parties is to come up with a concrete plan, not to voice problems without any actual solutions.
“What your boss really wants...is for you to come to him/her with both a problem and a solution,” Triplemint cofounder David Walker writes. “It's okay if your solution ends up being wrong, but there is nothing more valuable than an employee who tries to solve problems and improve the company, no matter what the problem is.”
Your manager already has a dozen problems, and your complaint will only add to their list. Bringing a solution shows that you want to help and aren’t just there to complain.
Come Prepared to Discuss the Problem
Along with providing solutions, make sure you have all of the information needed to review the problem. As we discussed above, if your boss is really listening to you then they will ask follow-up questions and want to know the full picture of what’s going on.
In an article for The Every Girl, Kat Boogaard says that the more background information you can provide on a difficult issue, the better. Additional data can prove your theories and highlight the magnitude of the problem.
Eliminate Conciliatory Words from the Conversation
How you speak to your boss can determine how seriously they take the conversation and how they interpret your message.
In difficult situations, most people tend to soften their sentences when they talk to management. Words like feel, just, maybe, but and wondering weaken your stance.
“Whether you do it consciously or unwittingly, littering your sentences with caveats and apologies in an effort to seem more agreeable is a sure-fire way to undermine your credibility,” Otegha Uwagba, founder of Women Who, writes.
It’s possible that your manager won’t understand the severity of the situation and will push back or ignore your request until a later date.
Speak to Them Face-to-Face
If the problem is time sensitive, or even something that can affect your performance throughout the day, your best bet is to find your manager and talk to them face-to-face.
“Come find me in person, because the problem needs to be addressed right away,” digital marketing expert Rick Kranz tells Hubspot. “Sending an email can delay my response time and doesn’t put us in a good position for a problem-solving discussion.”
Even if you only get a few minutes with them, you can voice the urgency of the problem and get a solution faster than writing a carefully-crafted email and waiting hours for a response.
Wait for the Right Time and Place to Discuss and Issue
That being said, you don’t want to ambush your manager or try to pull them away from other problems or conversations. Maynard Webb, founder of Webb Investment Network, encourages employees to make sure their manager is listening. If they seem distracted or can’t follow what you’re saying, then they probably don’t realize the importance of the issue.
It may be better to schedule time when you have their full attention instead catching them in the middle of something.
You also don’t necessarily want to call your manager out to the whole office. There’s honest feedback, and then there’s attacking your boss openly.
Career consultant Jennifer DeRome shares her experience as a manger getting feedback from her team. She had one employee who spoke his mind and she respected him for it. One day, though, he criticized her in a staff meeting, destroying her credibility and authority with the rest of the team. This was not the appropriate way or time to discuss the issue.
While managers value feedback, they also believe there is a proper time and place to receive it.
With practice, employees can grow confident approaching management with difficult news, and managers can get better at listening and taking action. Only then can the workplace move forward with constructive problem solving.