Your complete guide to approaching any difficult question, professionally
Broaching difficult work topics can be nerve-wracking at the best of times. But mid-global pandemic, it’s even more difficult.
Don’t dare ask that difficult question you’ve been waiting to ask with the economy in a mess? Think again. Leadership and performance coach Gita Trevorrow-Seymour, who also runs High Definition You, a service that uses neuroscience-backed techniques to help people thrive in their careers, has some advice. Think positive – but do your research, first.
HR director at Improb Hayley Cross agrees. Before broaching any big topic at work, she advises you to give yourself time to really assess the situation. “Do not make permanent decisions on temporary emotions. At the moment, we are living in a world where short sharp conversations are the norm,” she shares. Her top tip? “Adopt the same practices as you would in a traditional office setting and carve out sufficient time to hold the meeting.”
Many of you are likely feeling stressed at the thought of having to have these conversations via Zoom. Don’t. We’ve got practical tips for staying level-headed and approaching whatever it is you need to ask in the most professional manner.
Keep reading for expert comments with detailed advice on how to approach the most difficult work topics – including how to ask for a pay rise, address HR issues, discuss promotions, decide annual leave, you name it – all while working from home, mid-global pandemic.
How to have a difficult work conversation (inc. how to ask for a pay rise)
1. Don’t be put off by challenging economic times
Trevorrow-Seymour points out that your company may be extra busy, which could mean they need your contribution even more. If you’ve survived a round of layoffs it will make your stock go up, which means, in theory, your employers can afford to pay you a bit more, or give you that pay rise, or support your career progression. That’s if you can prove what you’re bringing to the company’s situation is of more value than before.
Stick to the language of the business in your pay negotiations. Simply pointing out that you haven’t had a pay review for two years, using words like ‘fair’ and ‘deserve’ and pointing out your ‘extra effort’, will do the exact opposite. What matters, advises Trevorrow-Seymour, is where the business is right now and how you will contribute to its future success.
2. Investigate the context
Before you start any difficult conversation, set up a Google alert for your company to track news in order to be aware of company and management priorities. They may have just landed a great big contract or laid off a layer of senior management. Whatever the case, knowing the facts means you’re able to have a much richer conversation with your manager about the direction the company’s going in, its priorities, and the value you’ll add, Trevorrow-Seymour.
3. Do your research
Who is the actual decision-maker and what can you do to create a deeper relationship? How well do they know your work or are you solely relying on your manager putting your case forward?
Next, Trevorrow-Seymour advises you research your market. “In order to work out your market value get comparisons from similar roles in similar industries, speak to recruiters and previous managers. Understand what people are valuing right now, the skills that are really important and the value you bring. Show them your updated CV and ask ‘What is my current market value and what do I need to do to improve that number in the next six months?’,” she advises.
4. Present a compelling business case
Again, this one is more focused on asking for a pay rise, but affects all important work conversations.
Trevorrow-Seymour advises creating a self-marketing campaign ahead of the company pay review cycle. “Ask your clients, stakeholders, and managers to email you feedback on the impact you’ve had. Evidence your tangible impact (eg sales) and intangible impact (eg team morale). Elevate your profile by contributing outside of your department, volunteer for employee groups, or to mentor an intern or new starter. Remember deserving a pay rise is not about ‘fairness’,” she shares.
She stresses here that putting in the hours isn’t actually what counts: focus on articulating the results, the outcomes you’ve achieved and will achieve in the future.
5. Ask with conviction
Be brave and state exactly what you want. Research shows the gender disparity in salaries is at least, in part, a result of not asking for the salary you want, and instead ask for the amount you think your employee might pay, says Trevorrow-Seymour.
“Why not try the following: ‘My market research shows my current value in this role is £X… and I’m currently on £X… how can we bridge this gap?’,” she shares.
Be direct about what you want, ask quality open questions, and be comfortable in the silence that may follow. If it’s a no, discuss what else progress could look like, for example, for you to get some training or to have an indirect report so you can start practising your management skills, she advises.
6. Don’t use bluff tactics
Be prepared to counteroffer your boss’ offers, but don’t counter-bluff, warns the advisor. “Either have another role that will pay you more as a tool for negotiation, or declare you will investigate other opportunities, but don’t pretend you have a better offer in your back pocket or this could backfire,” she shares.
“If they’re not willing to compromise and meet you in the middle, agree that you are happy to wait until a later date, and then revisit it. Until then, focus your energy on smashing expectations and not begrudging the fact you’ve given it all and ‘they’ haven’t recognised you for it,” she advises.
7. Always draft a professional email
According to Cross, it’s important to start things off in the right foot. “Do not start the conversation in a text format over Zoom or Skype,” she advises. “Draft a professional email, request a meeting, and send an invite.” This will work to replicate a traditional office setting and professional atmosphere, she reckons.
8. Check your internet connection
Simple, but important. Sometimes, a poor connection can’t be helped, but if you know that your Wi-Fi is sometimes poor, do what you can to rectify it. “There is nothing worse than poor Wi-Fi throughout an important conversation,” shares Cross.
9. Write notes
We’ve all been there – rehearsing the important conversation over and over until the real deal, where it definitely doesn’t go as you’d have hoped. “Draft some notes with specific points that you wish to voice,” Cross recommends. “Place it ‘off-camera’ if it makes you feel more comfortable – you’ll be grateful that you have assets to refer to if you do indeed freeze.”
10. Request the presence of HR
Really worried that you’ll find it difficult to ‘keep your cool’? You are more than entitled to request the presence of HR. “Remember, it’s HR’s job to be impartial and on everyone’s side. They will work to mediate and resolve so all parties are happy,” Cross concludes.