Confronting hostility in performance conversations

Jonathan Mills
3 min readApr 14, 2024


“Either we’re pulling together or we’re pulling apart” (David Cohen)

Confronting a low performer should be a positive experience, one in which the idea of seeking new behaviour in an employee is seen as an encouraging prospect. All people, however, typically resist any form of confrontation, even if done in the most professional way. As such and knowingly, managers often dread broaching performance issues and either avoid confrontation where possible or confront the employee disparagingly, producing even more resistance and poor relationships within the team. Confronting poor performance needn’t end up badly, however, as hostility can be defused.

Emotional intelligence is a crucial skillset for managers as all emotion needs to be resolved before any constructive feedback can be given. Free To Grow’s Coach 2 Excel workshop suggests the following seven guidelines for managers to defuse hostility:

  1. Acknowledge and deal with the employee’s feelings first — an angry person needs to have the issue and their feelings addressed in order to start interacting constructively. The more anger the manager encounters, the more important it is to acknowledge the anger through use of empathic statements and active listening responses, e.g. “I can see that you are really upset about the incident”.
  2. Begin to defuse anger as soon as you observe it — do not wait for the employee to get into an abusive rant. A simple “You look as if you are really irritated about something. What is up?” may make a huge difference.
  3. Be assertive, not manipulative, submissive, or aggressive — speak up in a firm, clear and assertive manner. Make sure that the critical message of “This (being bullied, suckered into stupid arguments or being insulted) is not going to work with me” comes through loud and clear.
  4. If you lose your head, you lose — self-control is critical. People in a conflict situation experience different degrees of emotional disturbance. The emotions commonly associated with conflict (anger, frustration, resentment) usually interfere with finding a meaningful solution. Managers can’t control employees’ emotions, but they can control theirs. This does not mean that the manager can’t feel emotions, but that the emotions must be managed so that the initial gut feelings don’t come into play and further fuel the high emotions of the employee. Slow down and think. Before you say something, think of how this will affect the employee and the process.
  5. Beware of pushing the employee’s ‘hot buttons’ — avoid prodding known sore points unless they are part of the poor performance issues.
  6. If you were in the wrong, apologise early — “I’m sorry” is a simple, yet powerful, phrase in setting the tone for meaningful discussion of problems and issues. If you were not in the wrong, it may be helpful to say, “I am sorry that this has happened. How can we fix it for you?”
  7. If you are really upset at what is being said, it is a good idea to take time out — this is not avoidance, but rather postponement, e.g. “This is not a good time for me to discuss this with you any further, but I would like to discuss this with you tomorrow. Let’s set up a time to meet.” Attempting to have a constructive conversation where you can listen well requires a mind unobstructed by conflicting emotions.

Confronting hostility in performance conversations requires a good dose of emotional intelligence, a coaching mindset, and a healthy understanding of the human condition. As Ric Charlesworth says in relation to coaching (and performance conversations), “The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable and comfort the troubled.”

Originally published at on April 14, 2024.



Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.