Managing difficult conversations with your colleagues

Dealing with difficult colleagues can be the most challenging aspect of leadership. Alex Masters talks to school leadership consultant Edward Gildea about common issues that you may face and how best to approach with them

Author details

Alex Masters is the former content lead for school business management at Optimus Education. She has a particular interest in HR, innovation and pupil premium funding.

They call it ‘the hedgehog’. You might recognise some ‘hedgehog’ behaviour in your staff: defensive, aggressive (‘prickly’) or closed-off body language (metaphorically rolling into a ball). Other common behaviour traits that senior leaders may come across include: resentment, negativity, bullying and laziness. There can be any number of reasons for this: perhaps they are feeling demoralised, antagonistic or burned out.

So what do you do when a member of your staff shows any of these behaviour traits? ‘Consider the conflict as an opportunity to find a deeper solution,’ says Edward Gildea. ‘Both sides have to talk – there is no alternative.’

Sharing data, seeking truth

During a difficult conversation, one of your first goals is to reach a ‘shared understanding of the reality’. Edward recommends using data. ‘Get them to explore the story behind the data and use this as a source of intelligent questions.’ He suggests that you ‘triangulate’ the analysis: three pieces of data pointing in the same direction might offer an area of truth.’

The question trick

During this conversation, we often stop listening because we’re trying to think of the next brilliant question. ‘That brilliant question doesn’t exist!’ says Edward. Instead, he recommends that you echo what they’ve just said, and then explore the key word or phrase. ‘Use that [word or phrase] as the kernel of your next question and steer it to where you want to go,’ he says. ‘It shows you are listening carefully and being empathetic towards them.’

Emotional

Often, such conversations can get highly emotional. ‘This is often because there’s something deeper going on, like issues of power or self-esteem,’ Edward explains. ‘Use your position of power to be supportive, dig down to the deeper issues and try and build a shared value. It will take time but until those issues are resolved, they can blow up disproportionately.’

In moments of high emotion, people often go into attack-mode and the recipient can take it personally. ‘Don’t!’ Edward urges. ‘Any of those attacks are not attacks on you but on your position of authority. Don’t feel that you have to defend when attacked – they’ll just attack harder! Rather than giving in to the temptation to compromise, try and collaborate. However, there may be times when you have to do something controlling, ‘something that makes them realise that there is a boundary; that you’re serious’ such as telling them that you’re ready to take formal procedures.

The awkward silence

Awkward silences are very common. ‘Holding silence is perhaps the key coaching skill because it puts them under tremendous pressure and it also gives you thinking time,’ says Edward.

While there is a temptation to offer your own suggestions for improvement, it is more effective to get them to generate their own answers because:

  1. you don’t know the answer for them because you are a different person
  2. you want to lead them to a moment of insight
  3. it’s likely they’ll just say: ‘We tried that: it didn’t work’, or: ‘That’s not going to work’, or they’ll give it a go but they’ll have a vested interest in it being a disaster.

But what do you do if they’re genuinely struggling to come up with their own suggestions or solutions? Edward recommends trying to generate options by using the technique of saying: ‘That’s good! What else?’ Use that ‘what else?’ phrase up to 20 times. This means their solutions are moving them out of their entrenched comfort zone. Once they’ve got past 12 they’re in creative mode.

Denial

In very difficult situations, you might face a brick wall of denial every time. On these occasions, Edward recommends you make the transition from coacher (who avoids making judgments and suggestions) to line manager (making judgments and being critical if necessary). At this point, Edward recommends that you say to them: ‘I’d really like to solve this problem with you informally, but maybe the time has come to take formal procedures.’ If you are going to take this step, you’ve demonstrated that you’ve given the employee reasonable opportunity to improve or comply. Hopefully at this point you get the bounce back because they think: ‘Wow, you are serious.’

Last Updated: 
04 Jan 2016