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How Do You Drive Employee Engagement Past Difficult Conversations?

"Difficult conversations should not be avoided and they don't need to be diminishing."~Nancy Mae Simpson


How do you drive employee engagement past difficult conversations? That is the question we will answer in this article.

Leaders, does this sound familiar? There is an employee that is not meeting expectations of their position despite previous attempts to talk about performance in friendly and less formal ways. The take home hasn’t gotten through, and now it is time to meet with them and really see what is going on with them on the floor.

It is completely natural if this upcoming conversation fills you with dread. Difficult conversations are not easy. They are stressful, and our greatest fear is that they won’t go well. It has been found that 80% of employees avoid necessary, difficult conversations, management included-for up to 6 months.

7 Tips to Prepare For a Difficult Conversation With An Employee

1.0 Don’t Avoid A Necessary Conversation or Wait Too Long

While it is great to address small issues informally as they happen with employees, there are times when sit down meetings and serious discussions are necessary. Do not avoid difficult conversations with your staff or wait too long to address significant concerns such as performance issues.

Putting off the meeting allows unwanted behaviors to continue with direct consequences for your business. Consequences can include decreased productivity, lower product quality and negative effects on customer and team relationships.

Often issues on the floor are first identified by members of the team and brought forward to your attention as the manager and leader. Allowing the situation to go unaddressed and not taking action to correct it, reflects really poorly upon you and will diminish trust and respect for the authority of your position. If staff see your failure to act and address issues, engagement may fall among team members who are following protocol or being left to pick up the slack.

When is the best time to have a difficult conversation? Right now. So where to start and what to do?

2.0 Know That Hard Conversations Don’t Have to be Destructive

Know that hard conversations don’t have to be destructive to your relationship with an employee or their engagement with the team. In fact, bringing to light issues that need to be addressed, if done well, can create positive change by showing your staff that you are aware and care about their performance.

Taking the time to give and ask for important feedback says that you are invested in job goals with your staff. When coming from a place of encouragement and support, your involvment drives engagement because it shows that you notice how much effort they make and care about what they do at work. Research from Gallup demonstrates that when a manager sets performance goals with an employee, engagement is significantly restored because 70% of variance in engagement is directly linked to the actions of management.

3.0 Plan Ahead and Present Facts

Don’t go into the meeting with an employee and wing it. You are already nervous and throwing things onto the table randomly and as your remember them, will be neither productive, effective or professional.

Irrelevant things will be talked about and import points will be left out. Lack of planning may lead the conversation to be based on hear se and emotions, which will only be counter productive.

Check the facts and be precise. If you are addressing behaviour and performance, be specific about what is being addressed as it relates to job expectations: the how, the when, the why. But even before that, be sure the expectations that you are calling them out on, were made clear and known.

Nothing will kill rapport faster than telling someone they are not meeting expectations that were not explained or being held accountable to important information about their position that was never given. Aka, make sure the underlying issue was not an organizational process or a leadership oversight from you.

4.0 Schedule the Meeting for the Right Place at the Right Time With the Right People

Choose a location with appropriate privacy and where you and your employee can both speak openly. It is not appropriate for other staff to overhear the conversation, and you don’t want to worry about disruptions. Additionally, set aside enough time. Don’t book the appointment right before another meeting or directly at the end of the day when people are pressed to rush and finish for the day. Allow the conversation to be longer than anticipated.

Lastly, depending on the nature of the meeting and the specific topic being addressed, it may be a great idea to include a neutral party as witness. This may be someone from HR if your organization has that, or higher up in management who can impartially sit in on the meeting for both of you.

5.0 Show Active Listening and Empathy

Be sure not to start the meeting as an attack. If possible, begin by presenting positives about what is going right and acknowledging the employee’s contributions at work. Let constructive feedback and the goal of positive outcomes set the tone of what is going to be talked about.

Next, present the facts of the concern to the staff member and listen actively without presumptions about their response. Ask open ended questions for clarification and reflected back what you are hearing.

By the end of the meeting you should have a clear idea of what the main factors contributing to the issue being addressed such as personal circumstances they are dealing with, need for further training/missing information or more consistent check ins and feedback on the floor.

Whatever the answer is, the meeting has to end with clarity about what happened so it is possible to move forward with a solution.

6.0 Make a Plan, Offer Support and Document

Following the disclosure of challenges and circumstances contributing to the issue that was discussed, include the employee in making an action plan to move forward. Ask what they see as solutions from their side, offer your insight to next steps from what has been revealed to you during the meeting. Most importantly, offer your presence and support to help them follow the plan successfully and ultimately succeed at work.

Send a follow up in writing to document the discussion. This gives a chance for both of you to be sure you are leaving the meeting and moving forward on the same page. As time passes it is the perfect reference to measure progress and review what was previously discussed. Documentation of important meetings is an essential tool you want to use in guiding your staff.

Never assume you will be able to remember the details of a meeting or that other people perceive conversations as you do. Summarize, make sure everyone agrees and keep the notes to refer back to when measuring progress.

7.0 Follow Up

Choose a time to follow up with the employee whether it be a few days, weeks or a month after the meeting. Talk with them about what is working and what is not with the progress plan that was made. Find out if any further adjustments are required or if the steps put into place are effective and the problem has been solved.

Follow up not only makes everyone accountable to their part of solving the issue that was addressed, but as a leader it speaks volumes about your willingness to support your staff and be present.

Be sure to follow up now and even when things are going well, show up and check in continuously, not to micromanage but to be there for your team. It is a huge boost to engagement to let an employee that was formally struggling know that they are doing a great job.


There are times when issues on the job are serious enough that it is necessary to schedule a formal meeting and have a difficult conversation with an employee. This situation is stressful for everyone one involved and is natural to want to avoid.

However, if approached in appropriate timing, from the angle of problem solving, these meetings can have great outcomes. In fact, they can actually serve as staff engagement tools. When done correctly, difficult conversations that call on accountability, show your employees that you care about what they are doing.

Reviewing standards and expectations also speaks to your investment in the success of the organization as well.

A positive approach to difficult conversations, demonstrates that you are willing to support your staff through challenges. When meetings are thoughtfully and intentionally planned out and employees have support and follow up, engagement can be driven far past a challenging exchange.


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