Ask Human Resources: Confrontation is hard, but saying hard things doesn't have to be paralyzing

By Jodi Schafer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP


I became a doctor because I like helping people.  I enjoy almost every part of my job except managing staff.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the teambuilding components, but I hate confrontation.  It seems that my staff knows this by the number of policy violations I let them get away with.  I try to address it, but it seems like by the end of the meeting I am apologizing to them!  I begin the conversation with the best of intentions and then if it gets really uncomfortable, I find myself agreeing with their point of view in order to end the meeting without hurting any feelings.  This has to change; I am losing control of my staff.  What do I say and how do I say it? 



You are not alone.  Not too many people enjoy confrontation.  We all want people to like us, so we are nice and hope for the best.  However, leadership is not about nice, it’s about being kind.  Kindness sometimes means that you have to say things that people may not want to hear, but that they NEED to hear if they are to improve and be successful.  ‘Nice’ if for you – it makes you feel good.  ‘Kind’ is for others – it requires that you sacrifice for their benefit.  In this case, the sacrifice you are making is your comfort level.

When you talk to your employees about uncomfortable topics, you want to keep the focus on what the person did (or didn’t) do – the behavior/performance; rather than why you think this is happening – the motive.  I’m going to provide you with a basic framework to help you prepare for and lead conversations like this, but first things first – do a gut check.  Make sure you have a good reason for having this conversation in the first place.  What do you hope to achieve and are you willing to go through the effort and potential awkwardness of confrontation to get it?  Your resolve has to be strong because you know your employees will test you.  Once you are mentally ready to move forward, follow these key steps:

           A. Prepare your Message – Know the key points you want to address and any details you want to have on-hand that substantiate your concerns.  Your demeanor will set the tone for the whole meeting, so you need to be in a calm, rational state of mind before you begin.

           B. Deliver your Message – Respectfully and Professionally

           1. Begin the meeting by telling the employee why you’ve asked them to meet with you; the FACTS as you know them surrounding the issue at hand.  Eliminate the small talk – it only confuses things.

           2. Share your thoughts/feelings about why this issue is a problem.  This is where you can refer to violations of written policies, the impact on others, the impact on you, etc.

           C. Invite a Response

           1. Transition from you to them by saying something like, ”Help me understand what’s going on?”, “What might be causing this?”, “Were you aware of this?”, etc.

           2. Let your employee have the floor.  Stop talking and start listening.

           D. Respond when necessary, but do not defend and do not interrupt.  This is not an argument nor is it a negotiation.  Focus on keeping the conversation respectful and professional, even if you disagree.  If the employee becomes upset or angry, you can offer them a few minutes to collect their thoughts before you start again, but do not allow behavior to spiral out of control. 

           E.  Once the conversation reaches its natural conclusion, state/restate your expectations for this employee going forward and potential consequences if improvement is not made.

           F.  Thank person for their time/thoughts/efforts and end the meeting.

You must be serious about the conversation and your expectations for the future if you want the employee to be serious.  Once the meeting ends, the real work begins because the real power is in the follow through!