27 September 2023

What to do when the talk gets tough

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With salaries no longer a taboo workplace subject, Roberta Matuson* says leaders must prepare themselves for increasingly difficult conversations in the future.

With salary transparency an increasingly talked-about issue, employers are preparing their leaders to have one of the most difficult conversations of their lives.

If the mere thought of addressing a challenging work situation with one of your employees fills you with anxiety and distracts you from other work, you’re not alone.

According to workplace resource start-up Bravely, a whopping 70 per cent of employees are avoiding difficult conversations with their boss, colleagues, and direct reports.

This percentage will rise as pay transparency takes hold.

Whether it’s due to the fear of retaliation, a negative effect on the relationship, or a lack of training, an overwhelming amount of people are avoiding tough conversations, and the result isn’t pretty.

This situation is about to get a whole lot worse, as employees begin to push for conversations around pay.

If you’re avoiding a difficult conversation with a co-worker, you may be able to get away with this.

However, avoiding these kinds of conversations with your boss or a team member could come back to bite you.

Here are some action-oriented tips for handling difficult pay conversations (or any conversation) at work.

Get clear on your objective(s)

The first step in addressing any difficult work conversation is clarity around what you’d like to achieve.

Let’s say you need to have a conversation with an employee whose performance is sub-par and whose compensation is on the low end of the pay scale.

Are you having that conversation because you want to help them improve their performance and increase their pay, or are you going through the steps so you can transition them out of the organisation?

Those two scenarios are two very different conversations, so it’s essential to get clear on what you want to happen at the end of this conversation before getting started.

Organise your thoughts

Most people who enter difficult conversations without a clear roadmap wind up doing more harm than good.

Leaders blurt out things they quickly regret saying, or they find themselves going in circles without an exit plan.

In my book, Can We Talk, Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work, I discuss the need to go into these types of conversations with a well-thought-out outline.

I also recommend taking your notes into the meeting to help keep you on course.

Think through the most probable questions you’ll be asked and prepare a response.

Remember, it’s okay to say: “I don’t know.” However, be sure to follow this up with: “But I’ll find out.”

Practice your lines

How you say something is equally as important as what you say, especially if you’re in senior leadership.

The higher you go in the organisation, the higher the expectations are regarding your performance.

Take a few moments and practice your opening lines before a mirror.

Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a trusted peer or a coach, ask them to role play with you until you’re comfortable saying what needs to be said.

Listen deeply

Most people are so keen on getting a difficult conversation over with that they charge through the exchange.

They aren’t really listening to the other person’s response and often miss a big opportunity to build a solid relationship.

If you slow the conversation and listen deeply to what the other party has to say, you’ll stand a much better chance of moving forward together, rather than moving further apart.

Set a date to speak

The quickest way to stop avoiding a difficult conversation at work is to schedule a date for your meeting.

With today’s technology, it’s simple to book an appointment.

The clock starts to tick the moment a get-together is booked on the calendar, which is exactly what is needed to catapult procrastinators into action.

Expect the unexpected

I’ve coached enough leaders on handling challenging work conversations to know that things don’t always go as planned.

Conversations around pay are tough for everyone involved. An employee may break down in tears while describing a personal matter that you are not aware of.

Or an unhappy team member may get up in the middle of the meeting and leave.

These things happen, which is why it’s essential to plan for the unexpected.

If need be, pause and reschedule a difficult conversation, as time for both parties to collect themselves may be what’s needed.

End the conversation on the right foot

Before closing the conversation, it’s always good to confirm the other person’s understanding of what has taken place.

Asking someone to tell you their knowledge of what just transpired can be very helpful.

If you’re saying there are certain objectives that must be met before their salary will be adjusted, and they think you’re promising them a pay raise, you’re headed for a crash.

Respond by saying: “Okay, I probably wasn’t clear enough; let me be specific and tell you exactly what you need to do before I can advocate for a salary adjustment for you.”

Difficult work conversations are here to stay and the ones surrounding pay are not going away.

The sooner you get comfortable with these uncomfortable conversations, the more confident you’ll feel as a leader.

*Roberta Matuson is President of Matuson Consulting which helps Fortune 500 companies and high growth businesses create exceptional workplaces leading to extraordinary results. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at matusonconsulting.com.

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