Are managers terrified of sensible conversations?

I’m such a fan of sensible conversations, but too often managers and business owners are terrified of talking to their team members. For example we often get queries about whether managers are “allowed” to ask certain things. Normally “Ask away!” is the answer, because it’s not the asking that’s a problem – where it becomes a problem is what you then do with the information.

A sensible conversation only represents a risk if it’s handled badly, so I’d far rather give guidance on how to approach a conversation, and what to do with the answer, than tell a manager they can’t ask something or can’t raise a concern or issue.

Sometimes managers are wary because the conversation centres around a protected characteristic so they’re worried about being accused of discrimination. But it’s treating someone less favourably because of a characteristic that’s an issue – talking to them about it isn’t.

And it’s HR people too – sometimes I hear of HR professionals who have been approached by an individual with an issue, and they start scrabbling around for what policy to follow. A certain risk-averse paralysis can kick in on occasion. But sometimes it’s not about a policy, it’s about taking a sensible conversation approach.

I think it is a crucial part of HR’s role to guide managers in navigating sensible conversations – more progress can be made in solving/avoiding problems and improvements made through sensible conversations than a whole ream of policies. It’s empowering for managers, it means they get results in dealing with people issues much more quickly, employees see things getting done, and the workload for HR in terms of administering policies can reduce as well.

Flexible working is an example. If a manager and employee can have a sensible conversation about a new working arrangement, there’s no need to then insist they go through a formal flexible working request process. Just formalise the agreement and move on.

Of course enabling/encouraging managers to have these conversations does mean they need to be competent to do so without causing a problem. But far better for HR to invest time and effort in developing and fostering these skills in managers and facilitating the conversations, than in restricting what managers are allowed to do and administering processes where this might not be necessary.

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