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Tips and Tricks for Those Dreaded Difficult Conversations

Being a manager can be rewarding in so many ways: you get the chance to set the tone of your department, greenlight exciting new programs and services, and hire and mentor wonderful staff. But, unfortunately, being a manager sometimes means having to initiate those conversations where you need to tell a staff member that there is a problem with their job performance. To help you make difficult conversations as painless and productive as possible, here are a few tips:

  1. Keep it private. Never discuss behavior or performance issues when others can overhear. Publicly criticizing or punishing a staff member is incredibly hurtful and embarrassing for them, and doing so can permanently damage your relationship with that individual, as well as with your entire team.
  1. Be prepared. These conversations are stressful for both parties and it can be easy to get sidetracked or overwhelmed. I’ve found it’s helpful to compile everything I’d like to say beforehand, and sometimes even practice a couple of times first. It’s okay to keep your notes with you to refer to throughout the conversation, but don’t spend the whole meeting just reading from them.
  1. Be open-minded. Many times I’ve started a meeting about an issue and learned through talking with my staff that I did not know the full situation. Questions like, “There seems to have been some trouble with your program today, can you tell me about it?”, or, “I heard that you are having a conflict with a coworker, could you share with me what has happened?”, can help staff feel comfortable telling you their side of the story and what influenced their choices and actions. Learning as much as you can about a problem is essential before deciding what to do next.
  1. Be specific. When you are discussing an issue with a staff member, be as specific as possible. For instance, if your staff member is chronically late, instead of telling them they are “late a lot,” keep track of every time they are late during a set period and share this data with them. Also, if they have violated a specific policy, have that policy ready to share with them verbatim. Your staff member deserves to know exactly what they have done wrong.
  1. Keep asking questions. As the conversation progresses, share any necessary information, but try to refrain from giving directives or offering solutions until the end. These meetings are often a great time to coach staff and help them grow professionally. Open-ended questions like, “What would you do differently next time?”, “How will you improve this situation?”, or, “What steps will you take to meet this goal?”, prompt staff to come up with their own corrective courses of action. Being allowed to give input and take the lead on solving their problems will also help staff feel more invested and empowered in their work.
  1. Make a plan. At the end of your meeting, make sure you and your staff member have a plan to prevent the problems you discussed from happening again. Asking, “How can I support you moving forward?”, is a good way to encourage your staff to talk about what tools and resources they feel they need to be successful and let you know if anything is missing. If you can’t provide everything they list, or feel that some things are unnecessary, directly address this with them and incorporate not having these things in your plan. You can then work together to come up with new workflows, work-arounds, or even change your definition of success to reflect these parameters.
  1. Check back in. You may want to schedule one or more follow-up meetings to discuss your staff member’s progress, keep them on track, and give them time to tell you about any new challenges or successes. I’ve found that by scheduling regular meetings with my staff, they share more with me and will tell me things they might not have thought to otherwise. This helps us catch small problems and course-correct before they become big problems.

While difficult conversations definitely aren’t the best part of management, they are necessary to keep your department running smoothly and help your staff meet their full potential. If you have a difficult conversation coming up – don’t worry, you can do this!

Today’s blog post was written by Diana Price, Central Library Manager at Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Virginia, on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. She can be reached at

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of VI. Administrative and Management Skills and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.

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