Practice Difficult Employee Conversations

November 22, 2016

Frequently in my management workshops and always in my coaching practice, a manager will bring up a "difficult employee" situation and ask how they can have the tough conversation with that individual.

Usually it is about some area where the person is not performing adequately. Sometimes it relates to a negative attitude, a generally lazy work style, or resistance to work assignments.

The challenge in these conversations is to:

  1. Keep your cool
  2. Listen for how the employee avoids, blames others, or denies any performance shortfall, and
  3. Respond assertively so that you move the "monkey" of accountability over to the employee, where it belongs.


The way some employees deflect responsibility can raise your ire in a heartbeat. You can easily get tangled up in their masterful manipulation which some have honed over the years with past bosses who failed to get them to do what they are paid to do.
The solution is to do dry runs of the conversation. In other words, practice.

When it comes up in a workshop I often ask the manager to engage with me in a short role play of the interaction in front of the class. He/she plays the difficult employee as realistically as possible (and they usually do a very convincing job of it). I play him/her, the manager, and we play out a typical or actual situation. Then, with the help of the class observing, we analyze how successful I was in avoiding the employee's "hooks" and getting him/her to take adult accountability for the job performance in question. We may then replay the scenario with the manager playing himself/herself and me taking on the role of the employee. Training participants frequently report that these magic moments were the high point of learning for them from the entire course.

You can do this role-play technique at work. Ask a trusted peer manager or perhaps your boss to help you out. Have them play the employee and give the interaction a couple of dry runs. If the employee (actor) succeeds in turning the responsibility or blame back on you, analyze what you said (or didn't say) that allowed this to happen. Make corrections and role play it again. Consider even recording the practice rounds in audio or video to help you get a clearer picture of how you are coming across.

One neat by-product of this methodology is that when you take on the persona of your difficult employee in a role play, you actually get a feeling of what it is like for him or her when interacting with you. It takes you to a new level of understanding of what is going on between you two and helps you be more effective dealing with the individual.

I know, it's weird but it works.