Difficult conversations at work

by Aquinas education
February 26, 2021

Working with a difficult member of staff

This is an area I have become better at over the years. Context is key so there is no right or wrong answer as to how to cope with such situations. I am an optimistic leader and believe in showering people with kindness. That said, kindness is received in different ways, by different people. To try to eliminate difficult situations, I have created a document outlining what the exact expectation is of every member of staff. It is not a job description, more of a guidance check linked to accountability. In addition to this I have a booklet called the ‘The SPAH Way”. This document supports standards and expectations in both my schools. Having moved away from formal observations and monitoring, part of my flip model of monitoring involves staff self-assessing where they feel they are at professionally. This in turn is moderated by a variety of staff not only SLT, and is linked to teacher standards. The SPAH Way document covers all areas from safeguarding, values, trips, procedures, polices, assessment, feedback and so much more. With such clarity in place, people’s behaviours become less challenging, though not non-existent!

With the above in place, it becomes somewhat easier to deal with difficult scenarios/staff but it is not the only resource. Everyone has to buy into our values and vision and must demonstrate that through their behaviours to each other, our community and to learning. Everyone must adhere to The Code of Conduct and other policies and procedures in place too.

I have a rule that I do not meet difficult staff alone (were possible and depending on the scenario in hand). I document everything raised in the meeting then give that staff member a copy.

If their challenging behaviour continues, I contact personnel and/or unions for guidance and inform my chair of governors. Always remember you are never alone. There is always great benefit in sharing your struggles with others.

Inviting that member of staff in for a chat could resolve the issue at hand.

Difficult Conversations

Over the years I have had a number of difficult conversations with staff. They can be both rewarding (if successful) but equally exhausting if your message is not heard, the person gets emotional or change does not happen. I have learned to navigate my way through such conversations but I have not mastered the art fully. From my experience it is always effective to pre plan and act quickly because they can help make schools great by creating positive change in a fair and just manner.

Having read Susan Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations, I always adhere to her advice:

  • Master the courage to tackle reality (do not put it off)
  • Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real (tackle the things that need changing – our pupils are worth it)
  • Be here and prepared to be nowhere else (100% focus is required. Do not start the conversation in a corridor or whilst working behind a lap top)
  • Obey your instincts (this is about your standards and values not Ofsted- be authentic)
  • Let the silence do the “heavy lifting” (pushed the onus on them not you to solve)
  • Tackle your toughest challenge today (do not put it off)


She goes onto outline how you can tackle issues:

  • Name the issue (I personally act quickly post a learning walk or if I have seen something that troubles me)
  • Select a specific example that illustrates the behaviour or situation you want to change (be clear do not be warm and fluffy here. This is your opportunity to highlight where change needs to happen)
  • Describe how you feel about this issue (frustrated, cross or even just say you agreed to…however I am disappointed that…)
  • Clarify what is at stake – why it is important (playing to people’s emotions/ adding logic)
  • Identify your contribution to the problem (so they cannot throw this back at you)
  • Indicate your wish to resolve the problem (remain silent here, allow the silence to do the “High Lifting” for you)
  • Invite the person to respond – gain their views by stopping talking and listening


Conversely, not having these difficult conversations is a barrier to school improvement. Not only does the issue remain unresolved, you may also lose staff members if they get frustrated at school leaders’ unwillingness to have the conversations that are required. Ultimately, the real loss is for the children and the quality of their education. Remain calm at all times. Do not respond to anger aggressively, diffuse the situation. If they cry remain silent, allow them time to reflect even if they leave, overnight they can think about the meeting too. I always make a note of the discussion, date and seek agreement on contents.

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