In the workplace, "Come in and shut the door" usually precedes a tough conversation and is a phrase known to strike terror in the hearts of employees.

But the manager on the other side of the desk is likely feeling just as apprehensive about delivering the news, according to a new survey conducted online among 1,120 employed U.S. workers—616 of whom manage employees in the workplace—by Harris Poll on behalf of communications consultancy Interact.

A large majority (69%) of managers say there is something about their role as a leader that makes them uncomfortable communicating with their employees.

In fact, the fear of hurting people's feelings and facing drama and retribution is reaching crisis proportions in the workplace, with over a third (37%) of America's business leaders reporting they are uncomfortable having to give direct feedback/criticism about their employee's performance that they might respond badly to.

The results showed that leaders who manage employees in the workplace are uncomfortable on a number of communication fronts, including:

  • Demonstrating vulnerability, e.g., sharing mistakes they've learned from (20%)
  • Recognizing employee achievements, e.g., giving praise for a job well done (20%)
  • Delivering the "company line" in a genuine way (20%)
  • Giving clear directions (19%)
  • Crediting others with having good ideas (16%)
  • Speaking face to face rather than by email (16%)

"The stakes are too high for managers and leaders to avoid having difficult conversations with their employees,” says Lou Solomon, CEO and founder of Interact.

In the absence of direct feedback, leaders become irrelevant.

“In the absence of direct feedback, negative or positive, we become less powerful and ineffective. Team communication breaks down. Leaders become irrelevant.

“But for leaders who get it right, feedback can create collaboration, a culture of connection and sustainable change

"In their everyday interactions, leaders are clearly not making the connections with their workers that can give them a competitive advantage."

Leaders who aim to become more comfortable communicating with their employees, whether sharing good or not so good news, are those who do the following:

1. Be direct, be kind. Being direct does not require being unkind. Making someone feel wrong, or feeling superior in some way, is off track. However, offering feedback is an opportunity for growth and can be an incentive for an employee to be more of who they are. At the same time, a direct conversation falls apart if you beat around the bush. It should include specific examples of behavior to illustrate the issues.

2. Listen. Listening provides a space in which people can feel respected. Ideally a direct feedback conversation is meant to spark learning on both sides—managers and employees must understand the situation together in order to make positive change.

3. Don't make it personal. Imagined slights and malice are toxic. It is easy to take things personally in a direct feedback conversation. Acknowledging the emotions being felt will offer the recipient a relief valve for any stress they might experience.

4. Show up, be present. Show up, be fully present—and don't rush off after having a tough conversation with an employee. Be brave enough to allow moments of silence to come into the conversation. Follow up afterward so that afterthoughts don't create imagined distance and hurt feelings.

5. Inspire greatness. Communicate the brilliance of the recipient and the aspiration for who they can become. Respectful, direct feedback restores the individual and the team to sanity. It costs absolutely nothing except an emotional investment of honesty, taking the risk of a bad reaction…and being uncomfortable.