How Nonprofit Managers Can Make Difficult Conversations More Effective

Create a more positive, productive work environment to better serve your mission.

By having direct and effective communication as a best practice, your conversations with employees about conflicts, performance, and disciplinary issues will be more fruitful.

two people in a private office environment having a difficult conversation

Two people are shown having a difficult conversation in a private area.

Chances are, you and the people you work with are in the nonprofit sector because you care about doing good for your community and the people in it. So when difficult conversations need to happen with your staff about employee performance, discipline, or termination, it can be a big challenge.

You can improve the productivity of these conversations and reduce the potential for drama before it starts. Here are a few simple steps you can follow.

Productive Meetings Take Planning

When possible, schedule meetings in advance. Tell the employee why you’re meeting and who else will be present.

Unless there is an objective reason to have concerns about physical safety, give the person you’re speaking with the dignity of a private discussion.

These conversations should be handled discreetly, as discussing an employee’s performance problems in a public place, like a coffee shop, undermines both trust and respect.

Keep it Small

Managers need to be able to have routine conversations with employees without relying on another person to convey unwelcome information. It’s tough, but a critical part of supervising employees.

Don’t succumb to the temptation to drag human resources or a board member into every employee meeting — unless there is a specific reason to have them present.

However, if you’re unsure whether HR needs to be involved, it’s always a good idea to cover your bases and check before your meeting.

Sometimes, managers hope that having another person present means they won’t have to lead the conversation.

Unless the meeting is about an issue that human resources is responsible for — like an internal investigation — then the manager should lead the discussion.

Prepare Specific Talking Points

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by emotions during a tough conversation. Nerves can cause you to forget your goals for having the talk in the first place.

Having some written talking points for yourself can help you keep focused, as long as you don’t just read them aloud. Make a list of what you want to communicate and keep it where you can see it during the meeting.

If you find the conversation straying off-topic or that it is devolving into an argument, return to your talking points.

If the meeting becomes contentious, you may even have to say aloud something like, “You’ve made it clear you don’t agree, but we need to talk about what comes next.”

Have a Clear Outcome and Say it Aloud

Identify the anticipated resolution or goal of the conversation and say it aloud early in the meeting.

Be clear: “I’m hoping to understand why you…” or “I want to be clear that your recent tardiness is having a negative impact on the work and needs to improve.”

Avoid generalizations like “improved performance” or a “better communication.”

Specifically identify any necessary follow-up and, if another meeting is necessary, when it will take place. Explain where the employee can go for questions or support if needed.

Recognize When a Follow-up is Necessary

Some statements an employee makes may require additional attention.
If the employee states that they have a medical condition, you may be obligated to offer them a leave of absence, or to explore other options for accommodation if the employee may have a disability. You need to reach out to human resources in this case.

If an employee claims they are being treated unfairly due to some protected characteristic, like race, ancestry, or age, then you have a duty as the manager to seek further advice from a human resource professional or attorney to ensure the appropriate next steps are taken.

Honesty is Kindness: Be Direct Without Being Cruel

If you have to share difficult news, don’t beat around the bush. Tough news should be delivered in the same way a Band-Aid is ripped off — quickly and efficiently.

A strong manager will be clear about expectations and consequences without diminishing someone’s experience or personal challenges.

Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, describes this management philosophy as “caring personally and challenging directly.”

Being direct does not mean being cruel. “You don’t seem to care about getting to work on time” sounds judgmental. “I see you’ve been late a lot,” describes a behavior.

If you’re coaching an employee about their performance, identify the specific tasks that are not meeting your expectations, where they fall short, and how that affects the nonprofit’s mission as a whole.

Instead of “You don’t seem able to get things done on time,” try being specific about the problem in a way that isn’t a personal attack and focuses on your mission.

For example, “When the reports aren’t done on time, our funders get frustrated and that makes it less likely we’ll be funded in the future. Less funding means less services for our clients. How can we fix this together?”

Characterizing feedback in objective terms by focusing on the behavior and not the personality helps employees from leaping immediately into a defensive position.

Now that you’re talking about the problem in objective terms, the conversation can be more productive.

Listen Actively

Difficult conversations are not productive when one person does not feel heard. Asking for the other person’s input is important for them to feel heard and for you to better understand their perspective.

Let the other person get their perspective off their chest, be explicit that their perspective is valuable, and avoid interrupting them if at all possible.

For example, you might ask a tardy employee “You’ve been late to work three times this week. I’d like to better understand why that’s happening. Can you talk to me about it?”

Someone who is late may tell you they are having a hard time with transportation to work, or that traffic has been terrible lately.

Keep in mind that, even if you don’t agree with the other person’s perspective, it doesn’t require you to rebut them. It’s okay to accept that their perspective is their genuine belief.

You can also simply acknowledge that there is a disagreement on that point or decide not to respond to a statement that is overly defensive. Doing so can help you move the conversation forward to your desired outcome.

Defensiveness is the Enemy of Effectiveness

Many a difficult conversation will see a manager restraining their own defensiveness in order to accomplish the goals of the meeting. It’s important to really hear the employee’s position. But that may also mean hearing some things that are unwelcome.

According to leadership expert Simon Sinek, “If we want people to speak to us honestly, we must be willing to honestly listen.”

It’s often the case that we feel the need to rebut anything the other person says that we disagree with, leading to a devolving exchange of accusations. This will prevent you from reaching that objective that you identified as the goal of the conversation.

Getting into a fruitless back-and-forth serves no one and can escalate into an argument — sometimes you may need simply to agree to disagree. This is where your talking points come in handy.

Reflect on Unconscious Bias

Many nonprofits have done internal training and initiatives focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the last few years. Uncovering how unconscious bias negatively impacts the workplace is an important part of that work.

In the context of having discussions about employee performance and discipline, managers need to be wary of implicit bias about perceived “anger” and how that plays into racial stereotypes. There is strong data to back up how implicit bias works in these conversations.

For example, a 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology described two studies in which participants listening to the same conversations were more likely to assign the description of “angry,” to Black women.

This, in turn, led to correspondingly lower performance evaluations and lower assessments of leadership capability.

By continually challenging yourself to be able to explain with complete objectivity on the goals of the conversation will help ensure that bias is not playing a role in your decisions.

Know When to Pull the Plug

No matter how hard you try, some conversations may still devolve to the point where they are not ever going to get to that desired outcome.

You may have to end a meeting when a productive conversation simply isn’t possible. Conversations that become abusive and hostile should be ended immediately.

Make sure you’re being objective about what is unproductive about the conversation. You may not like what you’re hearing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is being inappropriate.

By having direct and effective communication, your conversations with employees about conflicts, performance, and disciplinary issues will be more fruitful.

This results in a more positive, productive work environment and better service to your nonprofit’s mission.