ACT to Move Tough Conversations into Positive Workplace Outcomes

Part 3 of 3 articles that will provide tips for Preparing, Engaging and Acting to manage difficult conversations in the workplace.

Tough conversations about performance, office behavior, or team issues are never easy. If we engage with another team member on a touchy subject, we want that experience to be worth the discomfort for all.

Yet, many conversations happen only to see no behavioral change or improvement in the issue. It’s time to focus on action in a clear, measurable way.

Once you have Prepared and then Engaged with your colleague, you should be in a place of better understanding and agreement. It’s a critical moment to Act. Although we may be more inclined to just breathe a sigh of relief and watch the person walk away, we must press forward so the work leads to real change.

Take the time now to be intentional about ensuring positive outcomes!


Tip #1: Remind Your Colleague (and Yourself!) Why It’s Critical to Act Now

Have you ever been through a tough conversation and felt relieved, even excited? You did it! You addressed the problem in a professional way, and now the person is aware. Surely things will get better.

Then they don’t.

After a tough conversation, people often need some time to reflect, be alone, and possibly nurse a few hurt feelings. That’s human, and expected.

What happens after a week? A month? A quarter? Nothing seems to be changing, and now you’re afraid to bring it up again.

You’ve finished the entire conversation, heard their side, and agreed that change is needed. The first step in ensuring realoutcomes is reminding your colleague why this conversation occurred in the first place, and why action will have to happen in short order.

Example 1: “Thank you for engaging with me on this tough topic. We don’t want resentment to grow for the team anymore and we want them to know what was affecting your ability to be here on time. Then we can move forward with a plan to support you.”

Example 2: “I appreciate your transparency. We’re halfway into the quarter, so I knew we needed to get this figured out before numbers come from the Finance Department in six weeks. We need to take action now so we’re not in a bind at the end of the quarter.”

Reiterating the cause of the conversation is like a bookend. You started by letting them know what needed to be addressed, and then you end by reminding them why this conversation occurred. It keeps everyone focused.

Tip #2: Set Clear, Measurable Goals and Provide Support

Even with awareness, and the best intentions, it’s hard to know what to do after someone learns they may have to change behavior, take different steps than they expected, or set new goals.

Once you have reiterated why change needs to happen now, help them set measurable, clear goals to get there. Then there’s no uncertainty and everyone has accountability. They either meet the measures, or they don’t.

Example 1: “Please tell the team by the end of today about your new situation for mornings. I’m glad your daughter is attending a new school, and I’m sure the team will be, as well. Let them know you’re still trying to work out a carpool so you don’t have to drop her off every morning, and that it looks as though going forward, Wednesdays will be the only day you’ll need to arrive 15 minutes late. We all expect a final plan by the end of next week. Let’s set a check-in for that Friday at 10 a.m.”

Example 2: “Please let the Finance Department know today that our mid-quarter numbers will be one week late. Then work with Felipe to redo schedules so all spreadsheets can be completed by the end of next week. I’ll need updates on your progress on Friday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Does 11 a.m. on those days work for you?”

With those sorts of clear guidelines, there’s no questions about who does what, when, or why.

In addition, you also have to offer support, and possibly take responsibility for some of the steps. This can be a double-edged sword. You want to provide support for things your colleague can’t do themselves. However, you don’t want to do the job yourself—this is their change, and they need to make it happen. Using the two examples above, here are a couple of ways you could support:

Example 1: “I’ll talk to HR to make sure they can clear you for Wednesdays going forward, so that you can arrive late, and put in 15 extra minutes at the end of the day.”

Example 2: “I’ll talk to the VP of Finance to let her know that we have a plan of action, and that this glitch won’t affect reporting at the end of the quarter. I’m sure that will calm down a lot of the concern.”

When positive outcomes result from a tough conversation it ultimately changes how people view those moments. They see that good can come from adversity, and that you are really on their side for the good of the whole.

One last tip: When you get to the moment where change has occurred and positive outcomes are being enjoyed, be sure to thank, or congratulate, your colleague on his or her good work!

Karen Hough is the founder and CEO of, a company that builds adaptable, flexible, improvisational leaders and is in the top 1 percent of U.S. women-owned businesses. She is an Amazon #1 bestselling author, winner of multiple awards, and a Yale grad. For more information, visit: