The Keys to Difficult Conversations

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Learning to initiate unpleasant conversations is a critical leadership component.

In recent columns, we delved into some simple, but critical, behaviors that leaders need to deploy in order to drive employee engagement. As a refresher, here are the behaviors:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Encourage people to speak truth to power.
  • Reward contrarians.
  • Set information free.
  • Diversify your sources of information.
  • Admit your mistakes.
  • Build organizational support for transparency.
  • Practice having difficult conversations.
  • We covered the first six behaviors previously so let’s move on and dig into the remaining two.

Building organizational support for transparency is going to require some unpacking in order for us to understand the terms and what the behavior looks like. The first part of this topic “building organizational support” has some deep implications. For example, we know that building anything requires work and we know that building requires a set of plans. We can also surmise that building organizational support means that more than one person is going to do the work. And, finally, we can infer that building something could actually mean we need to tear down whatever structures are in place in order to make room for the new and improved organizational support structure. Every well-built structure starts first with a solid foundation. I believe the solid foundation for an organization that wants to build support structures starts with trust. One book I’m reading now is The Speed of Trust by Steven M. R. Covey and I highly recommend you get a copy of the book and read it. This concept of trust affects everything in our lives and the lives of the people in your organization. If you and your team can collaborate on establishing a set of core values and live up to them, you will have made a giant step in building your organization support system.

What about transparency? What does transparency mean in business? One simple definition of transparency is clear, uninhibited honesty in the way you conduct yourself. I think another way of defining transparency occurs when we take a look at the impediments to transparency. When you begin building organizational support for transparency, visualize a building encased in glass with a full view of the necessary information required for the team to cooperatively achieve common goals. Think about this topic for a while and make some observations about your own transparency at work. Also, make sure you are not being disingenuous with your team by having your actions contradict your words. Nobody likes it when the boss complains about how badly things are going but, for some reason, every Monday, the shop detailer has to clean the bosses’ boat that gets used every weekend and is parked on shop property during the week. Be real.

The last behavior is to practice having difficult conversations. It’s about you as a leader not tolerating the behavior and having a discussion with the employee that is keenly focused on removing the unwanted behavior while preserving the employees’ ego and self-worth.

You can certainly fill in your own example of the unwelcome behaviors that you most often see at your shop (millennials that take off a lot of time from work, employees that always seem to need to go to the DMV with no notice, etc.) but one of the most important takeaways on this leadership practice is to focus on the ellipsis that separates the opening sentence of the supervisor in the example above. Visualize the dot-dot-dot as your cue to pause between the two contexts of the conversation. Also, picture it as the place where you will not insert the word “but” into the conversation. If you do that, the truthful comment is now completely wiped out. The other secret ingredient to practicing having difficult conversations is the agreed-upon action plan between you and the employee. This seems pretty easy at face value, but until you put it into practice you probably fail to see see how many times you say “but”  and check to see that you aren’t carpet bombing the team by calling out the employee in front of them instead of dealing with it privately.

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