Confronting an Employee? 11 Communication Mistakes Managers Make

confronting an employeeJennifer Lockman graduated from UCLA majoring in Journalism. Now she works as a writer. Her expertise includes general education, e-learning, business, writing, and lifestyle.

Being a manager often puts you in a difficult position.

It isn’t always about smiling and cheering for your employees. It also means that you have to right the wrongs, and come face to face with unpleasant situations.

While there are countless ways to motivate the team and encourage them to attain success, when it comes to tackling the hurdles along the way not all managers have the knack for it.

Of course, one could try to instigate the fear of getting fired if you displease the manager, but that might not be the most effective way to approach a conflict with an employee. Nor is letting them assume that the manager is a pushover.

So if you are dreading that meeting you should have had a long time ago, we are here to tell you what to avoid and how to approach the situation. With adequate communication, a confrontation could help build stronger relationships in the office and boost performance.

In this Process Street article, we’ll cover 11 common mistakes managers make when confronting their employees and provide you with a host of process templates to try to make your life easier!

Common mistakes when confronting an employee

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It’s a fine line between being too hard or too soft, between being explicit and micromanaging.

It’s tough and there are no clear right answers.

But it is possible to pull out certain themes. These are 11 common mistakes managers make when confronting an employee.

1. Misplacing blame

The biggest communication mistake one can make as a manager is to put the blame on someone without understanding the whole story. Especially if you are receiving the information from someone else, an employee or a coworker, it would be wise to get the full context of the situation before you address the issue.

A Harvard Business Review Survey states that 58% of employees are more likely to trust a stranger than their employer.

It might not be a surprise considering how bosses tend to blame without thinking from the employee’s perspective. If you end up with assumptions without having all the information, it might lead to unnecessary personal conflicts.

2. Confrontation by email

Only a fraction of people actually enjoy confrontation, particularly in the workplace. So most of us try to hide behind an email when reporting unpleasant situations, wrapped up in corporate jargon. Unfortunately, this might not be the best approach and might even aggravate the issue.

Words through email always have the chance to be interpreted in different ways; what you intended might not be what the receiver understands. Of course, there are always possibilities that the email is forwarded to others and might result in more significant issues.

Regardless of how severe the problem is and how dissatisfied you are with the employee, refrain from confrontational emails and always opt for face-to-face communications to smooth things out. Use emails when they are part of a formal process.

3. Avoiding confrontation

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On the same lines as the point mentioned above, if you dislike confrontations there might be a tendency to avoid them altogether.

But when the behavior of an employee is starting to affect the performance or team morale it’s not wise to avoid confrontations any longer.

It is also necessary to have the topic sorted out so both parties can move forward and get past the problem, to focus fully on their work.

4. Not having a formalized process

So you’ve decided to confront the employee – it’s possible that the meeting could go in any direction. There may be denials, accusations, and even anger that could find its way into a confrontation.

Diving into this discussion without having a proper approach of how you want it to pan out may not make it as fruitful as you would want it to be.

There is no way to know how the other person will react. If the conflict escalates, you also want to handle the situation and even keep it as a future reference point to improve your approach.

Therefore, it is essential that you think about what could happen in the meeting and prepare for that. Write down the points you want to discuss so even if the discussion deviates you can use them to get a grip on the situation.

You can also look to follow a clear process to help guide the meeting – or meetings. You’ll find a load of processes for that further down, but here’s a sneak peek:

5. Not being explicit about expectations

When you’re telling someone that their performance or behavior was disappointing, it only makes sense if you tell them what you were expecting in the first place. The employees might not always be aware of their error or have acknowledged it. Having a confrontation by assuming that they know their mistake might not be productive. To avoid this, you have to be explicit about expectations right from the beginning.

Also, if you are telling someone what they did is wrong, it is also imperative that you explain to them how to do it correctly. Without that, you are not in a position to blame and will not be effective in helping them to improve.

Now that we have told you the basics of preparing for a meeting let us look at different ways to handle the actual confrontation.

6. Being the angry boss

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This could happen due to a number of factors. For one, you as a manager are already having a bad day and you take it out on the employee. Second, you have avoided confrontation for a while, and now all that resentment has accumulated to form a powerful weapon. Third, the employee has brought some serious damage to the company that you had to take responsibility for.

Whatever the reason was, now you have started spurting out a list of complaints without even allowing the employee to express their side.

Even worse is that the employee is probably overwhelmed and at a loss of words – perhaps taking all the blame – and this leads to a totally nonproductive and useless meeting. In fact, you might even have to have a second confrontation after this to clear up the first one.

How to avoid such mishaps when you are already furious? You will just have to keep it short, highlight the error and try not to diverge from that. Address the issue as soon as possible and stick to one or two examples of when the employee had made the error.

Be professional and try to avoid words like “ridiculous, sloppy, arrogant” etc. that might easily lead to other unprofessional terms. If there are more then three incidents to address it is partially your fault as you waited too long.

One effective way to approach a meeting like this calmly is to involve a third party to sit in on the meeting and assist you in conducting it. Provided you are following a set process, the meeting should have every chance of going smoothly.

7. Being the softy boss

This approach, again, won’t be as conducive as you would expect. You are trying to minimize the impact and not offend the employee in any way.

When this happens, the employee might not even understand that there has been any mistake or assume that even if there was, it was not such a big deal. Similar to an email, there is always a chance that the employee misinterprets such sugar-coated words.

It wouldn’t take long for you to be portrayed as a boss who doesn’t care what the employees do and they might not even take you seriously after this.

To avoid this problem, remember that you are here as a manager and not to be the comrade – at least not always, not in every situation.

You will just have to be direct with your colleagues and be crystal clear about the issue. Offering them a vague idea and beating around the bush will not bring any solution to the problem.

It is imperative to stress the employee’s error, ask them how they intend to resolve the problem and make suggestions. At the end of the meeting, once again, ask them whether they are clear on the matter.

8. Being too vague

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This approach of confrontation is often addressed as the “sandwich”. You begin with small talk or even a compliment, somehow succeed in squeezing the real problem in the middle of the meeting, make it a big issue, and end it again with a great compliment.

Done well, this technique can provide positive reinforcement along with the difficult truths the employee needs to hear.

But it’s a fine line.

The employee might be confused and have little clue about what just happened in the meeting. Afterwards, every time you compliment someone they would wait for the “but” part that would follow this.

How do you make sure the employee came away from that meeting with clarity about what they did wrong? How do you make sure the employee hasn’t seen your sandwich technique from a mile away?

If your team member thinks you were being disingenuous about the positive things just to cushion something negative, then they might not appreciate your praise in the future.

9. Not offering solutions

Do not be the boss who only finds faults without being able to provide a solution by themselves. A boss who cannot lead does not create a good impression among the employees. It is not just about telling them what to do. It is about showing them the ways it could be done.

When you confront someone, you should also sit down with them and come up with a new action plan to remedy any problems.

Knowing that you can solve problems will also encourage the employees to come to you in case they need any help.

10. Throwing employees under the bus

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A managerial role usually comes with a lot of responsibility. This means, even if it is not your fault, you might have to take responsibility for your employee’s actions.

When you accepted the position you were well aware of these factors. So when the big boss confronts you, assume responsibility like a leader should otherwise you risk losing the respect of your team.

If you’re regularly letting your employees take the blame for problems, other people in the hierarchy – above and below you – may start to wonder what you’re responsible for. You’re a manager. You’re responsible for your team. Their problems are your problems and you should be working to establish processes and systems which stop these problems from occurring.

Don’t betray your team and they won’t betray you.

11. Acting like a buddy too soon

Chatting away with your team at the water-cooler, proverbial or otherwise, is a nice way to pass the time and form the important social relationships which make for an effective team. Teams who can socialize with each other tend to pull harder for each other.

Being the manager, you want to foster strong relationships with all of your team members and you probably want them to like you too – we’re all human.

Whether you prefer the English original or the American remake, The Office is a good snapshot of professional life. Michael Scott was friendly with all of his employees (not you Toby) but he also knew when the fun had to end. Occasionally, at least.

In real life, the fun tends to end much sooner than in the sitcom-professional-world.

You have to remember to put friendships aside sometimes. Both for your benefit and for other team members. After dealing with conflict in the workplace, give people time to recuperate and recognize their professional boundaries.

Human resources templates to manage your employees

confronting an employee hr templatesSo, now you’ve got the tips, you have to find a way to implement them.

This is easier said than done!

Luckily, Process Street is here to make your life that bit easier.

One of the best ways to keep your employees happy and effective is to define best practices in dealing with them. This can also ease some of the pressures on the shoulders of your managers – you can define a process for them to follow when critiquing employee performance, for example.

Process Street templates work as a base from which to run processes. You run the process each time as a checklist and simply work through the steps like any other checklist.

All these templates below can be added to your Process Street account for free to help systemize and improve your human resources department.

Human resources templates for confronting employees

Let’s start off with a few dedicated processes and embed them so you can browse through the flow and content.

Office Conflict Resolution Checklist

Employee Discipline Checklist

Performance Review Checklist

Human resources templates for confronting employees, hiring, and more!

Here are a load more to keep you systemized and working!

Confronting an employee: Praise in public, coach in private

You have heard this before and have experienced it yourself. You don’t need to make a spectacle of your confrontations; this will only make people dislike you.

At the same time, never fail to appreciate an employee for their achievements. Studies claim that 79% of employees leave their organizations due to a lack of appreciation. Don’t be that boss that makes your employees feel underappreciated. This will in no way make them correct their mistakes.

With a little planning and strategy, it is always possible to prevent confrontation from becoming damaging, and instead leveraging it to find honest truths. As a manager, it is your job and an inevitable part of it. Focus on how to turn it around to promote the employee’s performance and even they will start appreciating such meetings.

If you can turn that approach into a process, even better!

Check out some more human resources content here:

How have you tried to manage confronting an employee and dealing with conflict in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below what your tips from experience are!

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Adam Henshall

Adam Henshall is a content writer for Process Street and dabbles in other projects inc Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, Adam's current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h


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