At one time or another, everyone in business will participate in a difficult conversation. Whether you must deliver bad news—such as a deadline that may not be met or with one of your employees whose performance falls short of your expectations—or you are on the receiving end of challenging news, it is important that tact and grace define the conversation.
The speed of communications in today’s global business environment has allowed some people to avoid conflict. Although email and instant messaging are helpful tools that increase efficiency and get work done, they are ineffective and can be disastrous when used to communicate information that should be part of a personal conversation.
When you identify a difficult situation, the best option is to engage the person (or team) directly. It is preferable not to handle it by email or some other e-convenience. In an environment with individuals spread around the world, it may not be feasible to meet face to face. Alternatively, you may need to use FaceTime, Skype, or another video conference tool. The telephone is a less desirable option, but it is better than one-way communication via text, email, or on a project management platform.
Delivering negative news through email or instant messaging creates an environment where there is little collaboration and puts undue stress on the people on the receiving end. It lacks a forum where they can discuss the issue at hand and where they could profit from the feeling that they are given an opportunity to respond, in real time.
Difficult conversations are an ordinary part of conducting business. Payroll professionals have many rewarding facets to their work. Many simply love their jobs, enjoy high job satisfaction, and are motivated by their interaction with business leaders. The field of global payroll affords you the ability to achieve success during times of change and accept the accolades that accompany it. Yet, there are sometimes less-than-desirable responsibilities that go with the job—such as tackling a tough conversation.
Preparing for a Difficult Conversation
There are ways to prepare for and approach this kind of conversation. Payroll professionals handle sensitive information on a daily basis and may need to participate in conversations with employees, staff, managers, and business division management personnel. Learning to successfully navigate a crucial discussion is a skill every payroll manager needs to acquire.
Many times, a difficult or crucial conversation can be an opportunity for growth and learning. This is true for both the manager and the person being supervised. Collaboration can promote a positive workplace. It will help strengthen relationships, build trust, and foster an environment of engagement. These are all positive outcomes of engaging in a conversation that initially may not be pleasant to confront but leads to an improved work environment, and it will be additionally helpful when external pressures require the power of a high-performing team.
When the meeting is conducted in an open, honest, and forthright manner, the end result can strengthen relationships among the individuals involved. Avoidance will not make the issue disappear. In fact, new issues may develop. Addressing a problem and coming to a resolution is the best course of action, although the process may seem daunting at first.
So, what should you do when confronted with a situation that should be addressed in a conversation, rather than email? Here are a few tips:
- First, identify the discussion points and make a list of points to be addressed. This will help you to keep the conversation focused.
- Think about where the conversation should take place. For example, will the discussion be an emotional issue for the other person? Consider having the conversation someplace private so that the other person can express their feelings in a safe environment. Holding the conversation in a neutral space is also important. If the issue has the potential to be emotionally charged, consider having yourself and the other person sit on the same side of the desk, not across from each other, to foster a more engaging communication style of discussion rather than a back-and-forth volley conversation.
- If you are using video conferencing, be sure to set yourself up in a quiet space where there is no disruptive background noise so you can completely focus on the person speaking. Also, never look down. Look at the camera to ensure that the person speaking feels that you are engaged and fully present. Ultimately, the environment should be a space that fosters collaboration, contribution, and cooperation.
Critical Points to Consider in Conversation
During the difficult discussion, there are several things you should do:
- Listen. Be quiet.
Listen to what the person is saying and do not think about your response as the person is speaking.
- State a goal for the conversation when opening up the discussion.
Be clear and to the point, but always be polite and engaging. Now is not the time to make jokes or make light of the situation. Opening the discussion in a calm, relaxed manner while at the same time setting the stage for the premise of the exchange will help to ensure the conversation does not go off in other directions.
- Compromise when appropriate.
When valid points are brought up, acknowledge them, and compromise when appropriate. This ensures that you are listening to the other person and that you are willing to collaborate to resolve the issue at hand.
- Document the discussion and list the expectations and the expected outcome.
This is critical. By putting the conversation in writing and documenting expectations, both parties have an opportunity to ensure that they walked away from the discussion with the same understanding and expectations.
- Focus on the content throughout the conversation.
Don’t be hung up by the process. Ask considerate, thoughtful questions as this will demonstrate respect and help you to understand the other person’s perspective.
Difficult conversations have high stakes and varied opinions and emotions run high. You can anticipate and defuse the situation by preparing ahead of time through planning and using the skills noted above during the discussion.
How Critical Conversations Prepare You for a Leadership Role
At some points throughout your career, you will have to handle challenging situations that will require unpleasant conversations. As a global payroll professional, this may happen early on in your career due to the sensitivity of handling payroll. Will you be required to deliver bad news, such as an error in pay that cannot be corrected until the following pay cycle? A misunderstanding about overtime? Or, perhaps as a manager you’ll need to address an employee’s negative performance evaluation. You may need to have a conversation with someone who is conflict-avoidant or emotionally charged. Both of these types of individuals are not easy to engage in a difficult discussion, and you will require planning and finesse to reach a successful outcome.
These types of conversations provide you with an opportunity to build confidence and integrity. The skill sets you build through preparing for difficult conversations are ones that will establish you as a leader throughout your career. Those who can successfully handle these types of conversations and ultimately make people feel heard and understood are the same people who are promoted to influential roles within organizations. It is a soft skill that can be challenging to master, but once you do, it can propel you forward and build your reputation as someone with whom people like to work.
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Nellie Bloom is President, MSI Global Tax and Compensation, a division of MSI Global Talent Solutions. She is responsible for the strategic direction and management of MSI’s global tax and compensation division. Bloom serves as MSI’s in-house subject matter expert for U.S. individual federal and state income tax and complex global compensation tax issues. Bloom brings more than 15 years of experience to this role. Before joining MSI, she was employed in the international expatriate tax department of PricewaterhouseCoopers. More recently, she was a senior manager at Deloitte. Her role included day-to-day oversight of client engagements, global compensation and tax consulting, policy development, and benchmarking projects. Bloom is an Enrolled Agent and a member of the National Society of Tax Professionals.