One of the toughest things for people to do is to have conversations that know the other party will not be happy to hear. The purpose can range from providing feedback for improvement, having to reject an idea, or identifying a mistake the other party made. In a leaders' world, difficult conversations are part of the job description, and there is no shortage of situations that requires the skills to manage these conversations effectively. As a leader it is never a good idea to avoid these conversations. If you do, you will have what author George Kohlrieser calls in his book Hostage at the Table , a fish under the table. He says that when you leave a fish under the table, it starts to rot and smell, which is exactly what happens when issues are not identified and resolved as they arise. The issues never go away; they just keep getting bigger and bigger until the situation ever explodes.
Leaders sometimes make the mistake of thinking that avoiding conflict helps them to be liked and gain acceptance from their followers. It is not facing conflict that makes or breaks a relationship, rather it is the manner in which these difficult conversations are approached. When leaders are unable to have difficult conversations with others, they create an environment of distrust. Followers do not know where they stand and can come to question the leader's honesty. Most importantly, they can question the leader's will to stand up for them if and when needed.
In one occasion I worked for a leader who, despite his high position, had a real problem with conflict. He wanted to be liked by everyone and had his Second-In-Command do all the "dirty work." He thought this made him more likeable, but he did not realize that his team had lost respect for him and felt like they could not count on him to make the tough decisions needed to take the organization to the next level. He was unable to take the next step in the organization because of his resistance to conflict.
It is natural to be uncomfortable with conflict, but as a leader it is a necessary part of moving your organization and those you lead forward.
Tips for having those difficult conversations:
- Realize that leadership is not a popularity contest. You CAN NOT please everyone and if you try, you will end up losing everyone's respect. When you stand for what you believe in, you might lose the popularity vote with some but the majority will respect you.
- Clearly state your expectations before issues arise . When expectations are clearly communicated, people do not have to guess what is expected of them. When they choose to deviate from what is required of them, it is easier for you to bring up how they are not meeting expectations.
- Leave your emotions at the door . No matter what has happened in the past or what you personally think of the individual, you need to be objective. Tackle the issue, not the person. If you need to wait until the next day then do so.
- Do it in private . Never have difficult conversations in front of others. Set up a time and a date, or if it can not wait, go somewhere private and discuss the issue.
- Understand that is human nature to be defensive . Our brain is wired to be in defensive mode at any sign of a threat. Whenever you bring someone to your office, they are automatically in a defensive mode so do everything you can to alleviate this. Most importantly, no matter what happens, do not take things personal and do not get defensive.
- Map the conversation . Take at least a few minutes to play out the conversation. Think of ways that you can tackle the issue in a non-threatening way. People respond negatively when they feel accused, misunderstood, or attacked, so avoid doing this even when it is clear they are at fault. Try to identify what may trigger a negative response and try to avoid it. Put yourself in that person's shoes. What would make you react negatively? What would make you take the feedback in a positive manner? This helps you be in control of your emotions no matter what the outcome might be. More times than not, it is usually worse in our head than when you have the conversation. Preparing for the worst keeps you calm because you know you are prepared to respond.
Remember that the more you are willing to have these conversations, the better you will get at resolving issues while maintaining relationships.
Kohlrieser, G. (2006). Hostage at the Table. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.