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How to have hard conversations with your team

5 November 2020 • 3 min read


It’s never easy to tell a team member you need to let them go, or reduce their hours. Unfortunately, those conversations are happening more frequently in the wake of COVID-19 and its devastating effect on the economy.

So what can you do as a team leader to make these conversations as productive as possible and provide your team with a clear idea of what’s next?

Plan ahead

Before you ask to meet, do your homework, says Auckland-based organisational psychologist Jayne Cobham, who consults to Z Energy.

“Sit down and plan the conversation; figure out what a good outcome looks like. Too many people try to have these conversations ad hoc. That's not generally going to get a good outcome for the business and it won't be good for the team member.”

Identify the issues at hand. Why do you need to reduce hours or make a position redundant? What is happening with the business?

Be clear and concise

“Be very clear in your head and write it down,” says Jayne. “People want to be kind, but it's not kind to waffle, or to go into a meeting and create uncertainty.”

Research has shown that not knowing what will happen in a stressful situation is worse than a negative outcome.

It is actually harder for employees to worry about a potential redundancy than to go through the loss of a job.

Treat people with dignity

If your team member gets upset, acknowledge their feelings. Offer to make them a cup of tea, and give them a break to collect their thoughts.

.If they are so upset they can’t take in what is happening, reschedule the meeting for another time, says Jayne, and offer them the opportunity to bring someone as support. It probably goes without saying, but if anyone gets angry or abusive, call an end to the meeting and reschedule.

.After the hard conversation, send your employee home. You can’t expect them to perform their job or treat your customers well after bad news. They need time to recover and regroup.

Give them something to work with

Your team member should leave the meeting with clarity about their position, and what the next steps are. Tell them if they should expect a letter from you, or if there will be a follow-up meeting. Let them know the timeline of events.

Consider sharing your situation with the whole team

Sometimes it is a good idea to ask the group for solutions, says Jayne, especially if you are a small, tight-knit workforce.

“If you have a team of five, everyone is fantastic, you don't want to lose any one and you hope your business will bounce back, have a conversation as a team. Explain, we have these problems, we won't be able to meet these costs and brainstorm ideas together. You would be amazed how many people would offer to work four days a week, or people who might have been thinking about retirement who will choose to take it.”

Reflect on your role in the situation

It’s easy to blame COVID-19 for all business woes right now, and it certainly plays a significant part. But good leaders will assess what they might have done differently to save employees from losing their jobs or taking reduced hours.

“They really ask themselves, what have I done up to this point to create this situation?” says Jayne. “This also allows you to think of all the positive things you have already done and to be able to share those. And when you start thinking about what you have done - it helps think about what you can do.”

Jayne Cobham Bio
Jayne is a Business Psychologist focused on the alignment of organisations’ strategy and people, particularly in the areas of enhancing the performance of individuals and teams at a senior level. With a Master of Arts in Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Jayne specialises in organisational performance, leadership, coaching and working with management teams. To get in touch email,

Tags Business

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