Monday, 10 August 2015 13:14

Don't be a wimp: why and how to have the tough conversations

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When I first started leading teams I prided myself on keeping the peace and my cool, no matter how stressful or volatile the situation.

After one long day and an even longer team meeting, a team member asked me to stay back for a chat, and tried, once again, to get me onside in a turf war he was waging. This was a re-run. I was tired, I was frustrated, I’d had it, and after what felt like months of biting my tongue – I really lost it. I yelled at him. I cursed. I told him I didn’t want to be called at all hours, had no interest in once again being called into these kind of petty battles, that his behavior was unprofessional and selfish, and I’d had it.

That night, I was full of regret about having lost my cool– talk about unprofessional. I assumed he’d be insulted and angry. The next day – he sent me an apology note. I was stunned. When I called to discussed – he told me something that has shaped my leadership approach ever since. He said when I yelled at him, it felt like the first time I’d been honest. He told me that my efforts to be diplomatic and levelheaded were confusing to him, he could sense there was some disconnect between what I was saying and what I thought, and as a result he didn’t know what to believe. His behavior improved immediately and so did mine. While I didn’t start yelling at my team members on a regular basis—I now always tackle tough conversations head on, I have the courage to be honest. My mantra: I have no right to be unhappy with someone’s behaviour if I’ve never told them how it impacts me, and given them a chance to respond.  That one conversation, decades ago, has been such a gift, making me willing to some pretty tough conversations head-on, with consistently game changing results.

Yet, every day—in my work counselling CEOs and senior leaders, I see leaders—especially in the social sector, who do all sort sorts of things to avoid just this kind of honest encounter, with the same belief I had – that being a leader means keeping the peace and rising above it all. They make all kinds of excuses for other’s behavior: “it wasn’t such a big deal”, “I’m sure it will pass”, “they’ve been working too hard”, “they mean well” as justifications for not having the conversation (about unacceptable performance or behavior). Often, leaders really concerned that they may be perceived as the bad guy, or worried about what will happen if they lose their cool.

Yet having a tough conversation can be one of the most caring things we can do. Even nothing more than the using the old, but powerful phrasing, “when you… fail to meet your deadline; write a substandard proposal; yell at clients; turn up unprepared to a meeting etc….it makes me feel disappointed, frustrated, embarrassed”, can be a path to open the lines of communication, and drastically improve a working relationship.

In truth, we spend enormous amounts of time with our colleagues, these are, for the most part of it – high intensity, long term relationships, that bear having the difficult conversations, and practice makes perfect.

What are your experiences? What results have tough conversations yielded for you? When have they gone right? Wrong?

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 August 2015 13:05
Liana Downey

Liana Downey is an experienced management consultant, who has consistently delivered results for clients on critical topics around the world. Liana is an expert advisor to the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Prior to establishing Liana Downey & Associates, she led McKinsey & Company's Australian government and social-sector practices, and holds an MBA (Public Management) from Stanford University.