Don’t Write a Policy Where a Tough Conversation Will Do

Throughout my career in Human Resources, I sat at the table many times as policies were reviewed and re-written.  I worked with leaders who would rather write a policy or draft a new rule to deal with an issue instead of having a difficult conversation.  I get it.  If you struggle with tough conversations then I have some great news for you; this skill can be learned!  It just takes coaching, commitment, and practice.

Difficult conversations are universally unpopular

We all have our reasons for avoiding difficult conversations.  Dealing with an issue may bring back memories of bad experiences, it may make us feel vulnerable, or we might be scared of saying the wrong thing.  To avoid discomfort, many leaders will indirectly address issues or infractions by implementing policies or re-writing existing ones. 

Better policies do not take the place of tough talks

Polices can be helpful because they let people know what the expectations are in the workplace.  They are readily available for review by all employees and they can give us an anchor when initiating conduct or performance management reviews.  But. . . even the best policy manual has limits.  Our individual experiences and perceptions about the world influence how policies are interpreted and practised, especially if they are ambiguous.  Policies can also be discriminatory, even when that wasn’t the intention.  Strict adherence to policies creates an inflexible culture where employees are not treated as unique individuals.  By blindly enforcing policies without examining the circumstances around a specific incident, we miss opportunities to resolve an issue and improve the workplace culture. 

Put the "human" back into Human Resources

While documentation is important in any challenging situation, it can never be a replacement for a one-on-one conversation.  There are so many factors that affect a situation and it is unlikely that your policy manual has accounted for every one of them.  Personal connection and meaningful collaboration are powerful tools for influencing immediate and future behaviour.  Conversations help gather important information that might not be available through any other channel and highlight issues or concerns that were not previously known.  Getting information, improving behaviour, and one-to-one connection can become a mighty trifecta for creating an environment where more employees are engaged and successful.

Having the conversation: tips to help you get started

First, please know that your hesitancy around difficult conversations is normal!  Here are a few tips to help you get started.

  • Create a safe space where you and the other party feel comfortable.
  • Prepare your talking points in writing to help you stay on track.
  • Communicate kindly and respectfully.
  • Maintain the other person’s dignity at all times. 
  • Be honest and straightforward.  
  • Offer a genuine invitation to participate in the conversation and be ready to listen.

Remember, it took time and training to get you to where you are today.  Just like you learned what you needed to be great at your job, you can also learn how to have difficult conversations that are respectful and productive.  We’ve made it easy for you with our Conflict Management and Difficult Conversations course.  Our proprietary model goes beyond general tips and dives deep into things like assessing risk and more. Contact us to learn about this course offering!