Workplace Doctor: Reprimanding employees takes good conversation skills

I find it hard to deal with staff when things aren’t working out. Whether it’s a problem with a project missing its deadline or an issue with someone’s dress code or punctuality, I find these conversations difficult. Essentially, I need to learn how to tell people off but these are all grown ups. What skills can I learn to make this process as painless and as effective as possible? ZM, Abu Dhabi

Many people find the conversations you mention challenging and difficult. Typically, it has a lot to do with our own motivators, drivers and triggers. Things we find difficult to talk to others about are things we wouldn’t do ourselves, and that pushes our buttons. We annoyingly think to ourselves “if I turn up on time, why can’t you?” or “everyone has met the project delivery deadline, so why can’t you?”.

That being said, difficult conversations are part and parcel of corporate life, especially when you’re managing other people. These conversations become demanding because opinions vary, the stakes run high and emotions tend to be strong. Handling such dialogue and successfully turning it into a productive conversation is a great skill, and more art than science. It can be helpful to think of such a conversation as a dance, where you move effortlessly with your partner towards a goal you both want to achieve – shared understanding.

To achieve this shared understanding, the first thing to realise is that you are not “telling people off” like a parent with a child. This is actually a conversation between two adults, where you are seeking to improve someone else’s performance at work. Your intentions seem to come from a good place, but the other person also needs to take some responsibility in making the situation work. The outcomes of the conversation rest on both of your shoulders because as they say “it takes two to tango”.

The next thing you need to keep in mind is that people will respond according to how important they perceive the conversation is to you. Your ability to be present and give full attention in any conversation can be the difference between it being a success or failure. Leave aside obvious distractions like a noisy office, laptops or your mobile phone and give the conversation the attention it warrants. If it doesn’t appear to mean anything to you then why should it mean anything to them?

Remember the most common distraction for all of us is not our surroundings but our “inner voice”; the self-talk in our head that speaks to us and stops us from hearing what the other person is saying. This voice is always there – you cannot stop it – but you can become aware of it and mindfully put it aside. Remember, being fully present and engaged is contagious and the other person has no choice but to sit up and listen.

The next step is to remain self-aware, as this is key for having effective conversations. Be aware of the specific triggers that cause you to unplug from the situation. For example, my trigger is when someone has nothing or very little say in return. I feel like they don’t care as much as I do, when in fact they may just be absorbing the information. If you are aware of these triggers, you can better control your emotional reactions and thus keep yourself in the conversation.

Another important skill for a conversation like this is to be able to listen and effectively decode what the other person is saying, and to make sure nothing is lost in translation (as that tends to often happen). Once you have voiced your concern, you must allow them to respond and carefully listen to not just what they have to say, but also how they appear to be feeling in the situation. For instance, their lateness may be because of a number of very valid reasons and you need to openly listen (even if you disagree), holding back the urge to reply. Remember we often listen to win and seek to be proved right, rather than listening to understand with the aim of achieving shared understanding.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Conversations don’t have to be difficult. Give them the time and attention they deserve and they will become a critical leadership skill. Every conversation is a dance between two people and to stay in time with the music, there are a number of simple steps you should follow. Remember to be fully present and to openly listen and you will achieve a shared understanding.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues

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Alex Davda

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