Let’s get real: engaging in honest conversations with your staff

Friday, June 5, 2015 - 17:24

Guest post by Karen Gately

It is every people manager’s, and indeed HR professional’s, responsibility to inspire and support people to thrive at work.   Engaging in honest conversations is critical if we are to have any real influence on the way people think, feel, behave and ultimately perform. Transparent, sincere and frank dialogue is essential to any leaders ability to not only develop the capabilities of their team but to address underperformance also. 

Time and time again however I observe managers avoiding the difficult conversations they need to have.  Some worry about how the person will react, while others shrink from the discomfort they themselves will feel. Some managers are driven by kindness and simply don’t want to make the team member feel bad. Others justify avoiding an issue by arguing that criticism risks further diminishing the person’s confidence and performance. 


Reflect for a moment on how often you have observed managers draw conclusions about someone’s potential without first giving them a fair go. How often have you met leaders who fail to give people the insight they need to understand why they are struggling?  Many fail to invest the time or energy it takes to help someone build the awareness, skills or approach needed to succeed.  How well do you yourself engage in honest conversations that allow people to grow and develop?

The power of tough love

The single most important aspect of a people manager’s role is to deliver tough love when needed.  That is, being completely honest while delivering feedback with compassion and sensitivity. While the truth matters so too does nurturing the spirit and confidence of the individual we are trying to help.  An empowering and respectful process, tough love demands that you deliver fair and necessary feedback with conviction and kindness.

While telling the truth provides the opportunity for people to understand and take ownership of their performance, if not delivered well it won’t work. Brutal honesty on its own can be destructive or inspire defensiveness. Avoiding the truth, on the other hand, can be equally damaging as it holds people back from reaching their potential and ultimately succeeding. While many managers fear and therefore avoid having difficult conversation, most people in my experience appreciate constructive criticism if delivered well.

Seven essential steps to engaging in honest conversations include:

  1. Act with good intent

Aim to enable people to improve, grow and ultimately thrive in their careers.  Focus on your obligation to tell it how it really is and know by doing so you are making a positive difference.  Remember, everyone deserves to know the truth about how they can and need to improve.  Those of us responsible for developing and leading people have a duty to share it.   

  1. Engage in dialogue

Conversations are a two way street.  Its not enough to tell people what you have observed or think about their behaviour or performance.  Invite people to share their own views about what they are able to do well and what they can or should do differently.  Listen also to how they believe you and your organisation can better enable them to thrive at work.

  1. Get over yourself

People managers have a responsibility to overcome fears or barriers standing in the way of honest conversations. It is a matter of integrity that you do the job you signed up for and get past the hesitations that hold you back from speaking and hearing the truth through honest conversation.

  1. Leverage and nurture trust

The trust and respect people feel toward us has a profound impact on the extent to which they willingly engage in honest conversations.  Earn and nurture trust by behaving fairly and with compassion.  Avoid personal judgments or criticisms and focus instead on events, behaviours or capabilities. 

  1. Be Direct

Be straight with people and avoid the common mistake of softening your message.  Doing so undermines clarity and is most likely to lead to confusion.  Don’t rob people of the opportunity to understand the full extent of the truth.  The truth is a gift of opportunity we give people to understand reality and do something about it. 

  1. Be specific

Vague criticisms of someone’s approach or performance do little to help them understand what needs to improve and how they can about that.  Help people to understand the specific behaviours or capabilities they need to develop.  Provide examples that allow people to understand your feedback.

Enabling people to grow and thrive demands a ‘hands on’ approach to coaching them.  At the heart of effective coaching are honest conversations.  It isn’t possible to inspire, encourage, direct or hold people accountable without engaging in open dialogue regularly.  Don’t wait for things to go wrong before talking about issues or learning opportunities you see.  Make open and truthful interactions with your team a part of the way things are typically done.  

Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people.