How to address concerns in the work place…

Addressing concerns in the work place can be uncomfortable.

We all like to be liked – especially at work, where we spend most of our waking hours.

So most of us tend to avoid conflict. To postpone the difficult conversation. Or at worst, not have it at all.

This, somewhat universal propensity to avoid candour, often leaves the offender unaware of his/her faults without being given an opportunity to alter their conduct.

It is not uncommon for people to be notified of their failings or even non-performance for the first time just prior to being terminated.

From an organisational perspective, occasional bad behaviour, left unchecked, becomes normalised over time and culture takes a turn for the worse.

This is unfair on both the team and the person involved – especially, when early intervention could have resulted in changed behaviours and a positive outcome for all concerned.

It is for these reasons, that contrary to popular belief, sometimes it is the first straw that breaks the camel’s back, not the last. For the behaviours we walk past, or condone are the behaviours we unintentionally promote.

Critically here however, we need to differentiate between patterns and one-offs.

If someone is late to work, having a bad day, going through a particularly difficult time or even if they’ve made a terrible mistake – but do so out-of-character – that must be considered as simply that – a one-off abberation.

For we are all human and imperfect…requiring some degree of tolerance – forgiveness and understanding.

Patterns, on the other hand, tell a different story. If over time, for example, an otherwise good employee arrives regularly late to work – there is a genuine need for a conversation.

So how do we address such matters in a meaningful and effective way?

The answer, in our experience, is four-fold.


In today’s work environment the manager must make time to cultivate a working relationship with her/his people. Firstly, we recommend frequency of communication.

As a rule, a fortnight should not pass without at least one meaningful engagement with every member. This not only builds trust but also provides context on the human person – their story, their passions, their sense of purpose.

These interactions need not be long and tedious. In fact, brief but frequent and authentic conversations have proven to be quite powerful.

For only if we truly understand our people and they us, can we perform together to reach our shared goals and outcomes.


Rather than confrontation, we encourage having a lens of consultation.

Empathetic enquiry is one of the most effective ways to understand and address concerns in relationships – not just at work but even in our personal lives.

When we enter the conversation with an open and inquisitive mindset of seeking to understand rather than be understood we may learn that the reasons for certain actions are more important than the actions themselves.

An otherwise great employee has formed a pattern of arriving late at work. Even a brief but authentic conversation may suggest that he or she has to care for a sick family member or needs to drop off a child at school – instead of anything more serious. Perhaps the solution in such a situation is just more flexible work hours.

In many instances, a frank chat may reveal that the person is simply unaware that s/he has fallen into a habit of doing certain things that are antithetical to the workplace culture. When made aware they are often remorseful and keen make amends.

Of course, there will be times when a conversation results in a legitimate need to address a serious issue.

Here, we want to separate the behaviour from the person. Too often the temptation is to conflate the two with dangerous results.

The goal here is modified behaviour.

The desired outcome is not a change of person or even personality – not the least because this is almost impossible – but because this is often not required.

Avoid language such as ’you always’ or ‘disappointed’ – these words leave no room for action. They are counterproductive.

Rather, an empathetic yet direct addressing of the concern, providing examples and the context of its impact, can be most effective: “What you did yesterday on the factory floor is not what we are about. It affected the team working on that project and as a result we let our client down.”


A critical success factor in addressing dissonance is timing and context.

Whilst we have argued before about the timing when addressing bad patterns early – when we do this is just as important.

Reserving difficult conversations to a time and place when all parties are capable of clear thinking and away from the heat of the moment or heightened emotion can be the difference between achieving genuine change or leaving everyone involved upset and even angry.

Sometimes managers find it less confrontational to address one person’s wanting behaviour to the entire group. This can be counter-productive. If it is done so in general terms – no one is quite sure what is being addressed and the person may also quite easily miss the message.

If it is specific and someone is called out in front of the group this can often be unfair and humiliating – when a quiet private conversation would be far more effective.

It helps to pay particular attention to an individual’s feelings and self-confidence in these matters. Embarrassing someone or denigrating them in private or worse in public leaves her/him the lesser for it.

And no one wins when a member of your team, family or social group, for that matter, is left broken, lacking in confidence or hurt.


Finally, there must be consensus on the future.

An agreement that negative behaviours will be discontinued or modified, or where there is inaction a commitment to agreed action.

Specificity is key. As are timelines for change – knowing what behaviours need to start or stop and when.

Perhaps an email or note to confirm what has been discussed and what is expected. This ensures there is no ambiguity or misunderstanding.

It is worthwhile raising the matter of good manners as a useful aide with any and all human interactions – particularly those that are sensitive.

For where there is trust (built on authentic relationships), clarity and good manners,
you have an environment that is far more conducive to exploring even the most awkward and difficult conversations.