Embracing Those Dreaded Tough Conversations

By Steve Leslie

All leaders have to have a tough conversation at least once (but likely more!) in their career. Regardless of whether it is disciplining poor performance, firing someone, or telling an employee that they won’t be getting a raise, it is never easy to have these conversations. It might be more comfortable to put off these talks, or avoid the person, hoping that the issue will resolve itself.

Why do we run from conflict? In one word, safety.

As a leadership development coach, I’ve had the opportunity to help my clients overcome their areas of frustration. Two of the biggest areas they tend to struggle with is building a culture of accountability and having tough conversations. Both of these issues have to do with the same thing: conflict! Having those tough talks and then establishing responsibility all are necessary for a productive and healthy workplace. One cannot exist without the other.

While very few of us enjoy conflict in the workplace, we seem to avoid having them as often as possible. Unfortunately, we often convince ourselves that the pain of not having that hard conversation will be less than the pain of actually having it. But what exactly is holding us back? It’s the fear of the unexpected. We don’t know how others will react when we do bring up something unpleasant but necessary. Will people dislike me? Will things escalate to a terrifying degree? Will it create an unbearable work environment? The fear of the unknown is what stops us from venturing into that uncertain environment of hard conversations.

Personally, managing conflict was nerve-wracking. Any sign of it, my heart would begin to race. I would stress the entire day about a discussion I would have to have later, and I would become nervous and vulnerable. That feeling of fight or flight mentality took over my primitive brain.

However, instead of just continuing to stutter through a hard meeting, I looked at my motivations for trying to avoid conflict and the effect that it was having on my team. I realized that accountability, or the willingness to accept full responsibility, was driven by three key things 1) alignment in values to build trust 2) my own personal leadership 3) embracing coaching and having tough conversations.

The good news is that with practice, you can master this skill. Embrace that fear of conflict! You should view it as a challenge or an opportunity for growth, instead of an obligation or something to dread. Here is how to prepare to engage in conflict in a way that keeps both parties accountable and the work environment positive.

1. Change Your Mindset

To truly turn conflict from an obligation to an opportunity, you need to switch up your mindset. Try to reframe the discussion into a more positive one. For instance, if you need to give negative feedback to an employee, redefine it as a constructive conversation about growth and development. If you have to turn down a promotion or project, instead, think of it as offering an alternative solution to your boss. Instead of labeling it as a difficult dialogue, think of it as a normal conversation to make it easier for you.

2. Plan What You Want To Say

Prepare questions in advance of what you want to say. Jot down a few notes, but don’t worry about writing down what you want to say word for word. Keep the key points that you want to mention, but be prepared if the conversation doesn’t go exactly as you plan. You should be flexible in the discussion, and be open to creating a dialogue. Creating a few questions beforehand can be a great way to do this. This can lead the way to a productive two-way dialogue that helps to move along the discussion. Having a loose plan of what you want to say can keep you from becoming flustered, while keeping your temper and helping you to deliver harsh feedback.

3. Remember The Power Of WE And US

During the discussion, avoid the word “YOU.” Instead, create a more collaborative and engaging environment with the words “WE” and “US.” For example, asking, “how can we improve performance in this area?”

Throughout the dialogue, you might gain insight into why something has occurred. Perhaps there is a technical issue that is holding an employee back, or extra training is needed. Or, perhaps there is a personal issue that is affecting their work. By building this environment of opening and accountability, it helps to fit the needs of the employees better.

4. Summarize And Agree On The Next Steps

Make sure that you and the employee are on the same page regarding expectations and consequences. That way, it is much easier for you to have tough conversations in the future because employees already know what it is expected of them to perform well and stay motivated. Take notes either during or after the meeting so things are clear and fresh in your mind.

If you are finding an employee struggling with a consistent lack of accountability at work, it might be time to create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) goals. It provides transparent communication between the two parties and leaves little to the imagination.

5. Follow Up

Once you’ve had that tough talk, it is important to keep the environment of accountability going. It can help solve any small issues before they become full-blown problems. Once the employee has had time to digest the conversation and incorporate any feedback you might have had, it can be helpful to see if they are performing as expected. Make sure to praise them as they are doing things right and focus on the positives. If appropriate put it in writing!

Having those tough conversations is just one element to building a highly accountable environment. We will discuss alignment in values and personal leadership in a future post.

Next time, when you face conflict in the workplace, you will be ready to embrace it. Plan for it to help build a safe and trusting environment for your team.

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