Avoiding Difficult Work Conversations is Costing You – Here’s How to Have Them

CoachHub · 13 April 2022 · 5 min read

Fear is a silent thief at work. Fear steals time that could have been spent on working or headspace that could have been used for creativity. Above all, fear prevents us from tackling things that need to get done. Considering the conflict avoidant culture prevalent in Asian workplaces, it’s safe to assume that fear could be preventing your company from performing at its full potential.

After all, people hardly ever get praised for stirring up conflict at work. Most employees would rather fly under the radar and avoid collisions unless absolutely necessary. Even if confrontation cannot be avoided, the next best course of action is usually to make as little noise as possible, even if it means not addressing the situation at hand.

What difficult conversations are employers and employees having

This wouldn’t be a problem if people were burying the hatchet over trivial things. But that’s usually not the case when it comes to work. Conversations that people usually avoid at work revolve around subjects such as:

  • Performance issues: Letting go of underperforming staff or informing them that they are skating on thin ice is never an easy task, but someone has to do it to prevent entire teams from being held back.
  • Complaints about co-workers: Nobody likes being a snitch, but if toxic or disruptive employees are affecting anyone’s productivity and wellbeing, then it may be helpful to have a third-party step in to mediate.
  • Voicing concerns: No employee should have to work under abusive or unfair work conditions. Speaking up might empower those with similar sentiments to fight for what they deserve, too.

This problem has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Remote work has made conflict avoidance even easier. Besides, why bring up the elephant in the room when you can hide behind a screen. Recent polls found that nearly 70% of managers face difficulty communicating with employees, with over a third of them struggling to give employees
negative feedback.

But we can’t run away from our problems forever. Ignoring difficult conversations makes it hard for those involved to move on, stalling the overall progress of teams and organisations. Clearly, there is much work to be done to help employees feel more comfortable with being honest with one another, and their superiors.

Why avoiding conflict at work is not healthy or productive

Like a festering wound, unaddressed issues can gradually eat away at the morale, atmosphere, and bottom line of a company, creating a vicious cycle where more issues occur over miscommunication regarding an existing one. According to research by workplace advisory group Acas, workplace conflict can cost a company millions in manpower and revenue:

  • 50% of employees suffer from stress and mental health issues relating to conflicts at work.
  • 900,000 employees take extra time off just to distance themselves from clashes in the office.
  • Workplace conflicts cost employers the equivalent of S$42.2 billion per year.

With a high turnover rate, HR departments will have to spend thousands of dollars and hours putting up job adverts, weaving through talent pools, and training fresh faces. The thing about festering issues, however, is that you never know whether they are still lurking around the corner. This means that the time and effort spent recruiting new people may go down the drain when the new hires eventually get irked by the same unaddressed problems (which made the older employees leave in the first place)!

The thing is, people leave jobs for a variety of reasons; some personal, some professional, sometimes for things that are unrelated to the workplace altogether. But without a culture of open communication, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why people are leaving. Avoiding difficult conversations is akin to not plugging a hole in a vessel that is sinking the ship – all while constantly towing out water to the point of exhaustion and wondering why the ship continues to flood in spite of one’s best efforts.

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How to handle difficult conversations at work – 3 useful tips

People avoid conversations because they fear backlash, but there are actually ways to make these conversations without having things blow up in your face. Of course, emotions are typically high in scenarios where sensitive issues are discussed. But it’s better to rip off the Band-Aid and let the wound heal instead of allowing a company to be eaten away from the inside.

As a rule of thumb, always go into every conversation ready to tackle issues, not individuals. Nobody wants to feel like they are being cornered by personal attacks, especially not in a meeting room. With that as a baseline, having a handful of strategies to fall back on can help keep conversations productive and on track.

1. Be Direct

Misunderstandings arise from miscommunication, which is exactly what you’re trying to put a stop to. If you have the unfortunate task of bringing bad news, don’t muddy the waters or beat around the bush. Make sure that there is no room for doubt as to what you are talking about. Be objective, leave your assumptions about the individual at the door, but make sure that they understand all the details about what’s going to happen, and what is expected of them moving forward.

2. Demonstrate empathy and understanding

It’s one thing to be direct, and another to be rude. The person on the other end of the table is human, too. Setting their performance on the job aside, remind yourself about the positive traits of the other party and try to put yourself in their shoes.

It’s also important to be mindful of your body language, tone, and other nonverbal cues. Spoken in different tones, the same sentence can have wildly different implications. Exercising compassion helps both parties remain level headed and on-agenda.

3. Acknowledge mistakes

Conflict is rarely started by one party alone. Broaching difficult subjects isn’t just about having the courage to speak up, but having the patience and willingness to listen to the other side of the story. Acknowledging one’s own faults or what the company could have done better to accommodate for an individual employee makes them more willing to receive feedback as well, and can shed some light on blind spots that were previously overlooked.

Train your leaders to handle difficult conversations with employees

The best way to stop conflict is to prevent tensions from building in the first place, but that’s often easier said than done. The second best alternative is to train your leaders how to create a culture of openness where honest feedback is welcomed instead of shunned.

That’s why we designed CoachHub’s Co-Development Hubs. This platform encourages employers and employees alike to view issues from different perspectives and equips them with the necessary steps to come to amicable resolutions at work.

Frequent dialogue sessions can help your employees understand themselves better, which in turn helps them to understand the people around them better. They will also learn and understand different communication styles and preferred modes of work.

Get in touch with our team to find out how you can ensure fear isn’t preventing your company from performing at its full potential.

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