difficult conversations at work

Interviewee: Stephen Bell, Managing Director

An organisation is made up of its people, the culture and importantly the conversations that take place in the workplace. However, not all cultures are transparent when it comes to having difficult conversations at work around inappropriate behaviour.


A 2022 Gallup* study about ‘reporting unethical behaviour’, found that a notable 4 in 10 employees reported inappropriate behaviour at work. This is where the role of a manager becomes pivotal. Managers have a key responsibility — to improve communication and foster a safe work environment that encourages and reassures employees that having tough conversations won’t burn any bridges.


According to Stephen Bell, Managing Director at iHR Australia, a manager needs to realise that having difficult conversations about behaviour needs to be part of their toolkit. It’s also crucial for managers to realise that their role the role of a manager starts with prioritising management first followed by the industry they work in.


But what action should organisations take if the manager is struggling to initiate difficult conversations at work in the first place?


Here’s what Bell believes are the key reasons why managers avoid having difficult conversations and offers advice on how organisations can build an environment of providing feedback without facing long-term negative consequences.


Interviewer – Before diving into why managers avoid tough conversations, can you take us through what counts as ‘poor’ workplace behaviour?

Stephen Bell – First off, we need to understand there’s inappropriate behaviour, which can be unlawful, such as workplace bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment (refer to Fair Work Act’s recent regulations and the Respect@Work Bill), and then there’s behaviour that purely goes against the values of a company. What we all need to reiterate in the workplace, particularly around health and safety laws, is that it is clearly communicated to all employees and that any type of behaviour that is unreasonable and causes psychological harm is unlawful.

When we look at organisational values, it’s crucial that organisations establish clear boundaries about what’s acceptable and what’s not in the workplace from the start.

It’s also important we understand that not all behaviours that make people feel uncomfortable are either unlawful or against the values of an organisation. So, for instance, a manager may be having very direct conversations with someone about their performance, this could make them feel uncomfortable. But it’s their prerogative to initiate such conversations.


Interviewer – Why do you think managers avoid having these difficult conversations around behaviour in the workplace?

Bell – There are a few reasons why managers tend to steer clear from having these tough conversations, and the reasons are interrelated.

First, it’s not only giving feedback about inappropriate behaviour that seems to challenge some managers. It’s giving feedback at all. Some managers don’t have sufficient time or simply don’t prioritise giving feedback to their people. The other reasoning being some managers lack the confidence to provide feedback to their people. This is often perpetuated because the manager does not possess the skill to execute difficult conversations that are needed.

Finally, some managers avoid conversations about performance and behaviour due to their highly collegiate relationships and underlying desire to remain popular amongst team members.

In our training program ‘Custodians of Culture’,  we dive deeper into these three leadership approaches, and provide coaching on how managers can overcome these behaviours and attitudes in the workplace.



We also can’t overlook the fact that there is often a systemic issue within a department or team when it comes to giving feedback on behaviour or wider performance. It’s just not in the DNA of the workplace culture to handle complaints or have difficult conversations in an honest light.


Interviewer – What are some ways organisations can encourage managers to have these tough conversations?

Bell – It’s a great question and I think it comes down to the kind of office culture we create, where people can have honest, respectful conversations about behaviour. This definitely starts with the leaders who need to be open about receiving feedback on their performance or leadership patterns.

For example, a team member should be able to say to me, ‘Steve, have you followed up on this task that you said you would?’ without feeling like they’ve crossed a line. And when I don’t do it, the employee can openly talk about the impacts of not carrying out this duty.

So being able to receive feedback and being able to give feedback starts with your leadership style. And once a team masters this notion of receiving and giving feedback, then the organisation begins to form a culture of exchange and this, in turn, boosts confidence levels in people to have difficult conversations from the get-go.

If I’m being honest, it’s not in my nature to have difficult conversations. My preference is that all conversations be positive and enjoyable for my people. However, over the years, I’ve developed a strong understanding of myself and have worked on certain aspects of my own attitudes, habits and behaviours to overcome this reticence to have tough talks in the workspace. This is why I think it’s crucial for all managers to understand their strengths and weaknesses better.


Interviewer – What kind of training can organisations start implementing to ensure managers have tough conversations?

Bell – I think there are a number of actions a manager needs to take. It’s not just training but it’s having a commitment to being proactive as a leader in identifying inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. This in turn requires managers to know what leadership is. In our training programs for leaders, we look at how we can support managers to step into that leadership role as well as gain a deeper understanding of themselves to spearhead conversations around workplace behaviour.

One of our training programs caters to newbie managers who are often people stepping up from being a peer to a leader. This cohort of people need to understand the difference between being a leader of a team, and part of a team.

Another leadership program that we offer focuses on experienced managers, with a minimum of three years’ experience, who are aiming to drive better outcomes in their organisation. So, our workshops provide a holistic view along with the tools and techniques to help trainees develop strategic, analytical and people-focused thinking to effectively build teams and drive workplace changes.

Undertaking such targeted workshops can really shape specific skill sets and can uplift a manager’s ability to have difficult conversations, and I think this is an extraordinarily important skill for managers in 2023.


Interviewer – What actions can organisations take to facilitate a culture of giving and receiving feedback without facing negative consequences?

Bell – It starts with defining the leadership role against which managers can measure their own strengths and weaknesses.

Once you provide managers with a clearer sense of expectations and knowledge of themselves, they will then understand a lot more about what to bring and not to bring into the workplace.

As leaders, we often want there to be a sense of enjoyment and fun in the workplace, but also be able to say ‘no’ or ‘you’re crossing a line’ to an employee, and vice-versa if we are responsible for the environment becoming too hostile or uncomfortable.

To be honest, I really enjoy being cheeky at home, with my family and friends, however, when I come into work, I need to present myself in a professional manner and bring the best of my humour into the workplace.


Where to from here?

iHR Australia’s Custodians of Culture program is a wakeup call for managers in 2023. This is one of our flagship programs that helps managers develop a strong understanding of their own behavioural patterns to help drive better outcomes for a modern workplace.



*2022 Gallup Workplace study found that only 4 in 10 Employees Report Unethical Behaviour — Here’s How to Fix It.

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