Do You Have a Minute? How to Initiate a Difficult Conversation With Your Manager

August 12, 2014 Diane Cobbold

There are countless resources available to managers on how to be an effective leader, improve communication skills, and deal with difficult employees, but what if the difficult conversation has to be initiated by you, the employee? What strategies can you use to effectively manage conversations with your manager?  The worst scenario is that you entirely avoid the conversation because you are too nervous or fearful of how to approach the situation.

How To Prepare for a Conversation With Your Manager. It’s very important that you prepare for a conversation before you approach your manager.  Consider things like:

  • How much time will you need to have the conversation?
  • What will your manager need to know about the issue? Is this a recurring issue or something new?
  • Do you need to prepare specific examples or documentation?

Once You're Prepared, Request a Meeting. Don’t walk into your manager’s office when they are busy and ask “Do you have 5 minutes?”.  Their focus is elsewhere and in most cases you will need much longer than 5 minutes of their time.  Instead, send your manager an e-mail, or pop into their office and ask, “I wanted to talk to you about something, do you have 20 minutes later this afternoon or tomorrow?”. Asking for 20 minutes will signal to them that it’s more than a quick conversation, which will allow them to schedule adequate time for your conversation.

Manage the Meeting and Your Emotions. Your manager may be aware of a prior issue or this may be something completely new to them. Since you have requested their time, it’s expected that you will manage the meeting. The following is a list of tips to help guide your conduct during the conversation:

  • Be straight forward and professional in your discussion. Don’t diminish the issue or be ambiguous.

  • Clearly state the facts of the situation.

  • Take ownership for things you are personally responsible for. Don’t deflect or lessen your involvement.

  • Where ever possible, talk about the steps you have already taken to resolve the problem or provide solutions to an existing problem.

  • If it involves other individuals, acknowledge their point of view.

  • Don’t let your emotions take control. Watch your body language. Never be sarcastic or disrespectful.

Be prepared for your manager to ask you specific and possibly uncomfortable questions as they try and understand the issue. Regardless of how uncomfortable you may feel you will have more credibility if your manager sees you approach the meeting in a professional manner.

Set Reasonable Expectations. It’s unrealistic to expect your manager to solve the problem during your meeting.  Depending on the circumstances, they may need to consultant other managers, Human Resources, or have conversations with other impacted employees. Before leaving the meeting, agree on the next-steps -- actionable steps you will both take and a date to have a follow-up conversation.

Review and Take Stock. Once the issue is resolved take personal time to review the situation.  How can the problem be avoided or managed differently in the future?  From this experience what did you learn about yourself and strategies you could use for the future?

About the Author

Diane Cobbold

Diane Cobbold is VP of Business Development in Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge’s Career Solutions Practice. Diane has over 20 years of experience working with HR teams to develop career solutions that support departing and retained employees to realize their career goals through traditional programs and virtual resources.

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