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How Leaders Abdicate Responsibility — Avoiding Difficult Conversations

In an address to the annual Global Leadership Summit, Patrick Lencioni said, “I think a lot fewer people in the world should become leaders. Everyone has influence . . . and they probably shouldn’t.” He then explained that motive is all important—if your “why’s” are off, your “how’s” won’t even matter; many of your “how’s” won’t even make sense.


According to Lencioni, there are only two reasons to become a leader. One is good and the other is not. There is “responsibility-based” leadership, frequently called servant-leadership, and there is “reward-centered” leadership: “What’s in it for me?” You must understand your leadership motive if you’re going to be a leader. Most of us understand this intuitively, but we don’t really think “why.” It doesn’t seem that being a reward-centered leader is really wrong. What specifically is bad about being a “reward-centered” leader?Lencioni listed the five situations that “reward-centered” leaders avoid, and as a result, people suffer.


In our next few weeks we are going to look at each of the five, one at a time. The first one Lencioni mentions is avoiding difficult conversations. A leader’s ability to successfully conduct difficult conversations can make the difference between success and failure—both for the leader and the organization. A difficult conversation typically means that one party must deliver news that is potentially unwelcome. The news is discomforting, can erode the listener’s sense of worth and be embarrassing or humiliating. It can be something as simple as telling an employee that the presentation he/she just made was not acceptable, or a more serious situation where someone on your team who has worked with you for over 10 years has to be let go.


Most people avoid difficult conversations because—well, you know, they are painful, awkward, and difficult. However, leaders, managers, and employees who are successful at work must learn how not to avoid difficult conversations, but to willingly and directly take them on. Avoiding difficult conversations can actually lead to dysfunction and lack of performance, which can ultimately have a negative impact on a team and the business as a whole. Having difficult conversations may never be easy, but there are ways to make those conversations both productive and as painless as possible. Instead of avoiding difficult conversations, you can find the courage to start confronting people in a constructive way, with skill and empathy.This is such a significant skill that every leader could and should make handling this well a continual growing edge for learning. Podcasts, books, and practice can help you much.

Here are some pointers to get started:


Conquer your fears. Let’s just admit it—no one likes conflict.We tend to avoid the difficult conversations because we don’t know how people will react and how bad it can get. That’s valid and understandable. A leader must consider that employees don’t always understand the environment or how behavior affects others or even the goals. They MAY appreciate your concern. They don’t want to feel “in trouble” or preached at. If you can enter with the desire to help everyone by handling the situation well, it will help your fears. Try to make sure it is a dialogue, not a monologue.


Do your homework. The more you prepare, the better the meeting should go. Don’t go in with just your observations. You need hard cold facts. Your lack of information will not help the conversation go well or help their growth. You are a coach. It is up to you to provide what your team members need to succeed. This is important to you as well.You should be able to outline expectations and explain why this conversation is necessary. Preparing fact-based evidence leaves less room for interpretation. It’s important to document conflicts and have policies in place for certain situations. The leader needs to know exactly what those are. For example, if you have an employee who has missed many workdays, it’s impossible to enforce rules and guidelines if they were never set in the first place. If you have a clear attendance policy, you can have them read and sign off on it.


Be positive. It’s important to set a positive tone as the meeting begins. If you are positive and pleasant you can often prevent defensiveness and argumentativeness.Give them examples of positive things they can do to improve. Don’t just tell them what they are doing wrong. Provide them with the tools and resources necessary for improvement. Let them know you want to coach them for success.Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like news delivered to you? Schedule the meeting as a “brief chat.” Don’t use any language that suggests discipline or punishment.Start by inviting conversation: How’s everything going? How are you feeling about joining the team? I have some idea of what we can do. But do you have ideas of how we can meet that goal? Can we talk for a minute about some feedback we’ve received about your behavior?Be sure you ask your questions with a positive approach. Make it a coaching dialogue. Make your conversation an open dialogue with proven facts and data to support your case and give them opportunity to respond. Always end the meeting on a positive note. Your employee should leave thinking they can do better and wanting to.


Leave your emotions out of the room. Difficult conversations can easily become emotionally charged. Make a strong effort to keep your own feelings in check and keep your conversation fact-based.Avoid making feeling statements like “I’m disappointed” or “I feel.” This adds your emotions to the equation.If the emotional levels begin to rise for either party, pause the meeting and ask to reschedule. It’s essential to navigate carefully and kindly. Giving a cool-down time can help.


Make sure to get the environment right. This is major to setting the tone of the meeting. Your office may be a suitable place for the conversation if the conversation is not too heavy. You don’t want it to feel like “the principal’s office” if possible.For general dialogue, you can choose to talk over a cup of coffee or lunch. An off-site conversation can lessen the chance of embarrassment for an employee. However, an off-site meeting may not be appropriate or interpreted well, depending on the company’s culture.If it’s a very serious conversation, coffee or a meal may not be appropriate. In this case you should select a neutral meeting spot, such as a conference room at your office. In any case, choose a safe environment that makes everyone feel comfortable.


You may need a witness. Unless it’s a quick chat without serious consequences, you should almost always find a witness to be present.This is vital when it comes to dealing with policy violations, behavioral issues or anything that may require disciplinary action. Never involve another employee. Make sure it’s a supervisor.The third party should be briefed on the situation to ensure that you’re both clear about expectations during the meeting.

Be consistent. All your team members must be held accountable to the same performance expectations. That means having the same dialogue with anyone who is missing the standard. Difficult conversations will never go well when the employee feels singled out unfairly. When you are prepared, you should be able to refer to facts to keep the meeting on track and the reason for the meeting well understood.


Keep the meeting confidential. Any employees who aren’t involved shouldn’t be aware of the situation. However, it is important when employees come to you “confidentially” that you make them aware that you can’t guarantee 100% confidentiality. You may have a responsibility to act or speak to others about what they have shared.When you get complaints or hear stories, you’ll have to take a step back and remember there’s more than one side to every story. You’ll have to gather information to make certain you have the facts. Keep it as general as possible. There are always three sides to these situations: the employee who complained, the employee who was complained about, and the truth.

Circle back around and review the situation.Once you’ve had the initial conversation and hopefully the situation has begun to improve, catch up with them for an informal, brief discussion looking back or reiterating your support.Focus on the future, provide suggestions and solutions for the future, and hopefully inspire the person to make constructive changes that will help him or her, the team, and the organization. The greatest leaders use both feedback and feedforward. Feedback and feedforward are truly the keys to successfully handling difficult conversations.Feedback is necessary. Looking at past performance is essential. It can be negative, but if delivered well it is very helpful in setting the stage for why change is essential. We can’t intelligently move into the future without understanding the past. The worst leaders give feedback alone and they often don’t do it well. It seems to feed hopelessness. Feeding forward, on the other hand, is almost always received positively because of the solution focus rather than the problem focus.Feeding forward, or coaching for success, is not a miracle. It doesn’t make every difficult situation easier. We cannot ignore past performance just because we are uncomfortable or unskilled in giving feedback. If we feed forward without the necessary look at the past, the meaning and impact will be non-existent.Whatever you do, don’t avoid the difficult conversations. The situation will not resolve until it is addressed. You are the leader who can prepare and do it well.

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