top of page

Don't Have A Difficult Conversation With Your Employee

Don't Have A Difficult Conversation With Your Employee: Have An Expectations Conversation Instead!

Here are 25 Tips To Have An Effective Expectations Conversation:


1. Why You Shouldn't Have A Difficult Conversation... Yet


Many leaders avoid difficult conversations because they don't want to hurt the employee. And equally because it's uncomfortable for them, too. When you finally pluck up the courage to 'go there' it often makes things worse! Why? Because expectations were unclear. That's why you should put off the difficult conversation and start with an expectations conversation instead.


2. How Clear Are YOU On The Expectations?


Before you have an expectations conversation, do this exercise. Score yourself from 0 to 10 on how clear YOU are on the expectations you have for this person in their role. 0 is 'no idea what the expectations are', 5 is 'pretty clear in general but would find it hard to nail it down' and 10 is 'crystal clear'. What score would you give yourself?


3. How Clear Are THEY On The Expectations?


Part two of the exercise is to guesstimate a score from 0 to 10 on how clear THEY are on the expectations you have for this person in their role. 0 is 'they have no idea what the expectations are', 5 is 'they think they're clear but they're not' and 10 is 'they know exactly what I expect of them'. What score would you give them?


4. Get To An Eight


Here's my advice: if your scores in the previous exercise are below an 8... you're in trouble. When you have a difficult conversation and there are unclear expectations, things blow up. Your goal through this process is to move the needle for the previous exercise so both scores are above an eight. That is a great goal to have walking into an expectations conversation.


5. Be Open To Feedback


In this expectations conversation, you need to go in with an open hand. Pay attention to what others say and be open to their feedback in the conversation. Listen carefully and try to understand why someone is giving you a certain opinion or suggestion. This way you can learn from it and make changes if needed (yes, YOU may need to change your expectations, too!).


6. Gather Information


Gather Information means to get more information about something. Think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes in this expectations conversation. You’re looking for details and paying close attention to what they’re saying to you. Try to find out as much as you can so you can make the best decisions to move forward.


7. Write down expectations


Do you have written expectations for this person in their role yet? If so, clarify these written expectations in the meeting. Find out what’s missing or what’s there but is unnecessary. If you don’t have written expectations, this meeting is your chance to create some. Once you’ve had the meeting, send through revised or new expectations for them to think about and then have a follow up meeting or conversation to get their thoughts.


8. Be Clear with Instructions


As you clarify expectations, make sure you’re being clear when giving instructions. Explain what you need someone to do and make sure they understand it. Give examples if needed. Ask questions to make sure they know what is expected of them. This conversation isn’t a confrontation, it’s a clarification. “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” - Brené Brown.


9. Listen to Employee’s Feedback and Business Suggestions


This expectations conversation isn’t a chance for you to hit them over the head with your expectations. Really, truly listen to what your employee has to say and consider their ideas. Ask questions, value their opinions and be open-minded when they give feedback or suggest ways to improve. Be ready and willing to adjust your expectations. That mindset will help this conversation immeasurably.


10. Set And Write Down Specific Consequences


When someone does not do as expected, it is important to provide them with specific consequences for their behaviour. This way, they know what will happen if they do not follow the rules. Include in your expectations the consequences if they don't follow your rules.


Don’t be weird about this. Just make sure it’s clear that if they miss a deadline you’ll meet with them about it or there will be some other direct feedback. That can be the written consequence. No need to include consequences here that are termination etc, unless you’re having this conversation at that point. In which case, it’s not an expectations conversation!


11. Acknowledge What They Share


Use active listening to make the expectations conversation successful. Here are simple rules for you to follow. Pause at least 10 seconds every time they stop talking before jumping back in. When you do speak, repeat back to them what they’ve just said. When they agree with what you’ve said back to them, summarize everything they’ve recently shared and acknowledge their opinions. Look for any sign that you’ve misunderstood and ask for clarification.


12. Address their lack of motivation


If your employee is not motivated, try to understand why. Give them support and help them find ways to do better work. Ask questions, listen to their ideas, and encourage them with positive feedback. This expectations conversation might be the moment you unearth a road block that changes everything. Motivation is not just as simple as whether someone is willing to try hard.


13. Dig Deeper and Find Out What's Really Going On


So you’re in the expectations conversation. The employee mentions a colleague and you can tell there’s… more to it. Do you skip past this moment because it’s awkward? Or do you clarify and listen really well? Do the latter. Try to understand the reasons behind someone's behavior. Ask questions and listen, so you can figure out what is really happening and why.


14. Don’t Have A One-way Conversation


If you sit there and present the expectations to them for the first time. Or re-present the expectations to them for the tenth time, that’s not a conversation! That’s a presentation. It sound obvious, but go into this conversation ready to talk 10% and listen 90%. If you can do that, everyone is more likely to win.


15. Don’t Make Assumptions


“Bob is an idiot.” We’ve all assumed things of others. Sometimes our assumptions were proven correct! If you’re meeting with Bob and you assume he’s an idiot because he keeps missing deadlines? Grab that assumption and throw it in the bin.


If you want to manage and lead successfully you need to stop guessing what someone is thinking or feeling. If you spend an hour with Bob and you listen well, you’ll probably realize Bob isn’t an idiot. If you’re only more sure that Bob is an idiot after the hour then you probably have a hiring problem and that’s a different blog called, ‘Don’t Hire Idiots’.


16. Find out why they’re frustrated


Let’s stick with Bob. And let’s assume… our assumption he’s an idiot was wrong. If Bob is frustrated, it’s easy to get defensive. Instead, try to understand why Bob is frustrated. If you can help Bob feel heard in this conversation, everything will be in a better place. You’ll have a foundation on which to build your next moves. If Bob doesn’t feel heard in this conversation, you’re in trouble.


17. Follow-up


Follow-up means to check in after something has been done. In this case, the expectatins conversation can be undone if you move on afterwards without a care in the world. You may feel better but you have no idea what the employee is thinking.


It’s crucial you follow up multiple times after the expectations meeting to confirm the expectations, find out how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking after the conversation and to lock down any action steps that were discussed or left in the air.


18. Get To Know Their Career Goals


A great way to start the expectations conversation is to come back to the big picture. Why are they working with you? What do they want to achieve in their career? Where do they want to be in ten years? 5 years? Six months? These questions shouldn’t take up the whole conversation, but they segue well to the detailed expectations you want to discuss.


19. Learn Their Strengths


If you haven’t already, consider an assessment like StrengthsFinder with your team. These conversations are so much easier when you have insight into how your employees are wired. Does Andrea love to achieve? If so, you’ll know to talk about goals and to ask her what she wants to achieve in the role.


Does Billy enjoy ‘input’ and loves to bring lots of new ideas together and store them in his head? Find out how he’s able to do that in his current role and brainstorm with him any ways he might be able to use more of his ‘Input’ strength in the role.


20. Observe Body Language


In any conversation, only 7% of communication is verbal. So much of what we say is communicated with body language. Make sure you’re on the lookout for body language cues in this conversation.


Is there an expectation or situation you start talking about that makes them tense? Dig a little deeper to find out why? Is there something they say and then they sigh deeply. Why? What was it about what they said that made them feel safer and more relaxed? Great leaders are great listeners are great observers.


21. Possible Questions To Ask In This Conversation


Some possible questions to ask during the expectations conversation include: ‘How clear do you feel the expectations are for your role?’ ‘What do you find helpful in communication around expectations?’ Whenever they say anything, ask, ‘What else?’ Another great question is, ‘How can I make that easier for you? What could I do to solve that for you? Is there anything I could do daily, even something tiny, that would help you with that part of your role.’


22. Recap The Conversation


At the end of the expectations conversation, recap by repeating what was said. Make sure you summarize the main points and any important decisions so you’re both on the same page.


23. Set Clear Boundaries.


Set rules for what is and isn't ok to do or say. Make sure your expectations include behaviours. This can be a great foundation to then have accountability conversations down the track about attitude or talking behind people’s backs etc.


24. Show them the impact of their work on the business


Before the expectations conversation, spend some time looking for the impact this person has had on the business. Explain to them how their work affects the business. Show them how it helps the business reach its goals and be successful.


25. Take meeting notes


Remember what happens in meetings by writing down important points. This helps you remember what was said and agreed upon. One helpful way to do this if you’re disorganized is to take the notes digitally in the meeting and send them via email to them straight away so you don’t forget.


Are you dealing with a difficult employee right now?


Don't jump straight into a difficult conversation! Have an expectations conversation instead.


The expectations conversation is part of my 3-step system for dealing well with difficult employees that really works, even if you hate conflict.


Learn about the system - and how to implement it - in my book Step Up or Step Out.


14 views0 comments
bottom of page