How to Navigate Difficult Conversations at Work

Managed by Q
January 24, 2020

Uncomfortable situations arise at work all the time. Some are easier to navigate than others, but every so often you may find yourself faced with the inevitability of having a difficult conversation with a colleague (or even your boss).

In partnership with The Newsette, we’ve answered their readers' top questions about how to navigate difficult conversations and situations at work.

How do I suggest we replace a new hire who has joined the team but is not performing well? This person has been at the company for about a month and has had a major attitude shift since starting. Our manager is remote and not able to check in with us daily.

First, you need to think about feedback: have you or any of your coworkers given this new hire feedback about their performance? What is the protocol at your company for giving/receiving feedback? Sometimes, we as coworkers have blind spots and need those who work with us to give us valuable feedback in order to get better.

Collect feedback for the new hire as objectively as possible and use specifics. If your company doesn’t have protocol for feedback and you feel uncomfortable having a conversation with this person, schedule a 1:1 meeting with your manager and bring your documented feedback.

Be prepared to give examples of the new hire’s performance and attitude. Ask your manager what the next steps are. Schedule a follow up meeting with your manager, too. That way, there’s accountability into making sure something is being done to help rectify the situation.

My manager shops and reads on her computer all day, while I don't even have time for a break.  What should I do?

You deserve to work on a team with individuals that work hard and inspire you. Having a manager that isn’t helping or doing work can lead you to feel resentment toward your job.

If you’re uncomfortable with addressing your concern to your manager, you could try to have a conversation with your manager’s boss. What is this person like? Does he/she have a track record of fairness and good judgement? Do you believe this person will work with you to come up with solutions? 

If so, collect specific feedback with examples to bring to your manager’s boss in order for you to explain your concern. Be prepared to point to the fact that, even if your team goals are being hit, your engagement and growth in this role are jeopardized.

The other option is to look for mobility to other departments. Are there other opportunities available inside the company? Maybe you have heard good things about other managers and would benefit from moving to a new team.

If neither of these options are viable, you should look for a new job. While this may sound extreme, having a supportive, hardworking, inspiring manager makes an incredible difference in your day-to-day job and long-term career happiness.

I have an airborne nut allergy, and work in a large office (with signs posted, emails out regarding the allergy) but people don't believe it can happen and seem to try to "test me." What can I do?

Feeling unsafe physically and psychologically in your office is extremely problematic. You have a right to not worry about your wellbeing (not to mention an allergic reaction!) when you’re at work. If you feel uncomfortable having a conversation with the people who are taking your allergy as a joke, you need to contact HR.

Schedule a time to talk with HR (or if you don’t have HR, your manager). You may have to come with a list of individuals that are “testing” you and request that HR speak to these people 1:1. Or, approach HR and see what kind of solutions they may have. Either way, it’s up to your company to proactively ensure an environment that prioritizes employees’ physical and psychological safety.

How should I deal with an overly-chatty colleague in an open office setting?

Asking a coworker (especially a friendly coworker) for space to get your work done isn’t easy, but you have a few options. You can choose the passive route and invest in headphones. A coworker wearing headphones, particularly in an open office setting, is an unspoken signal that says, “leave me alone… I’m working!” Another passive option is simply moving around the open area. Block out time on your calendar and go to a quiet corner or different seating area to try and get some deeper work done.

If your colleague is bypassing these vague moves (or you’d rather be more upfront), suggest carving out a time in the day for you two to chat. You could say that while you’d love to talk, you’re super busy at the moment and need to concentrate and then offer to get coffee together at a particular time. While you certainly don’t want to hurt your colleague's feelings, simply saying that you’re busy and can’t talk should be a good enough excuse. You are at work, after all!

Several months ago, I asked my boss for a new office chair because the one I had inherited was literally falling apart. He said to find what I wanted and let him know, so I found several options, he approved one, and we ordered it. Once the chair was delivered, a coworker helped me construct it, and my colleagues got up in arms about how it better be made of solid gold for such a fancy-looking, $300 chair. It was fine at first, but it has become increasingly more uncomfortable, and now it appears to be broken slightly. I don't feel like I can complain about it but I feel like this chair is ruining my back. Help!

Start with taking a look at the chair’s return policy and/or warranty options. Call their customer service support line and explain your issue. You may be able to replace the chair for a different model or even have the purchase refunded. If you’re unable to get a replacement or refund, look for options that can make your chair more comfortable like an ergonomic pillow

If those approaches don’t work, you may need to muster the gumption and talk to your boss again. This time, go to a few office furniture showrooms beforehand and test options out. Write down some makes/models that you like and see if you can find them discounted on Craigslist or AptDeco. While it won’t feel great to have another conversation that brings attention to your chair, you’d rather be uncomfortable in the short-term then uncomfortable every single day for the foreseeable future.

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