How to Approach Difficult Conversations as a Leader

How to Approach Difficult Conversations as a Leader

All of us, somewhere along our career paths, have either been on the giving end or receiving end of a difficult conversation.  I’ve been on both ends.  It’s rare that someone enjoys giving or receiving critical feedback, but a difficult conversation is often the catalyst for transformation.  Let me share an example with you.

How to Approach Difficult Conversations as a Leader

Thirty-five years ago, when I was hired to lead the Human Resources, Telecommunications, Purchasing, Office Services, and Facilities functions for a 1,500-employee office for a large, international consulting firm, I had a lot to learn about most of those functions (since I was basically a Human Resources professional at the time).  I also had a lot to learn about leading a team and being a leader.

One of my staff members (let’s call her Sarah), was an HR specialist.  She was one of the go-to people in that office and she made it clear by her actions that she was not a fan of mine.  It was quite obvious to the rest of the team as well.  For several months I approached her as I did everyone on my team of 35 people.  I was friendly, encouraging, trusting, and gave positive feedback when I saw behaviors, skills, or competencies that supported our goals and served our clients (the other 1,465 employees at that location).  I rarely gave negative feedback to anyone, including Sarah.

PI Profile – Promoter

Before I continue, let me share my PI profile:

I’m a Promoter with a one sigma high B (Extraversion), one sigma low D (Formality), A & C factors (Dominance & Patience) exactly on the norm.   In other words, I like people.  I care what they think about me.  I want them to like me (love me is even better). I’m a cheerleader.  My follow-through on details and following the rules is casual to say the least.  The A factor (Dominance) on the norm means I can be assertive and independent or accommodating and agreeable depending on the situation.  Since I like people and want them to like me, that often led me to avoid difficult conversations until the situation become stressful enough to bump my “A on the norm” up to a “High A.”  When that happened, watch out!

Back to the story.  The Managing Partner of the office wanted to promote an associate consultant, who had been hired three months earlier, to a consultant level because of her strong performance and capabilities.  He asked me for the paperwork (remember, this was the 1980’s) to submit his request for Executive Committee approval.  I went to Sarah and told her what he wanted to do and asked her for the paperwork.  Now, the important thing for you to know is that NO ONE could be promoted from associate consultant to consultant unless they have been with the company for at least six months.  It was a hard and fast rule, of which I was completely unaware, since I was fairly new to the company.

Sarah gave me the form, even though she was well aware of the rule, and she said nothing to me.  A little bit of passive-aggressive behavior on her part.

When the request was ultimately rejected by the Executive Committee, the Managing Partner came to my office and gave me an earful about how bad I had made him look (guess he was a high B as well), and that he hoped I demonstrated more intelligence and competence in the future.

When I dried my tears and went to ask Sarah about this, she said, “Of course it was rejected.  You have to be with us for six months to be promoted.”  When I asked why she didn’t tell me that, she replied, “You didn’t ask me.”

It took me several days before I could arrange my thoughts and calm my anger enough to meet with her.  When we met, I asked her a few questions:

Me:        “Why do you work here?”

Sarah:  “I like my job and I get paid well.”

Me:        “Would you like to be promoted to a level where you become bonus eligible?”

Sarah:   “Of course!”

Me:        “Who do you think is the only person who can recommend you for that promotion?”

Sarah:   “You.”

Me:        “So why would I recommend you for a promotion when you have let me and our department look incompetent, and obviously are not someone I can rely on to be part of our team?”

Sarah:   “I’m not going to change who I am!”

Me:        “I’m not asking you to change who you are.  I’m making sure you understand the consequences of your continuing to behave as you have.  It’s your choice to continue down that path or choose another path.”

Three days later, Sarah poked her head into my office and said, “I’m heading to the coffee shop.  How do you take your coffee?”  It was her way of saying she’d made a decision to choose another path.  Very long story short (I’m sorry it was this long), Sarah and I became the Dynamic Duo of the company.  We worked seamlessly together for 11 years, achieved amazing results for the organization, and became good friends outside of work.  We created a great relationship as a result of a difficult conversation.

Now to get to the point of this blog.  Most of us don’t enjoy conflict.  For those of us with a low A factor or one that’s on the norm, especially when coupled with a high B factor, we may shy away from difficult conversations until the situation becomes so untenable that we are driven to have them.  Even then, it can be a challenge to give what we perceive as harsh feedback.  But avoiding difficult conversations rarely, if ever, leads to improved results or relationships.

For those fellow low A/norm A’s reading this, consider what the reluctance to have honest, candid feedback and difficult conversations might be costing us and our colleagues.  Without that difficult conversation with Sarah, I would not have built the fantastic team that ultimately drove our office to be a model for other large offices of that company around the world.  I would never have learned from firsthand experience to consider what the impact of avoiding conflict had, not only on the relationship between me and Sarah, but among the entire team.  I wouldn’t have learned that being a leader doesn’t always mean being liked.  In fact, being “Radically Candid” as Kim Scott suggests in her book, “Radical Candor,” can be one of the keys to growth as a leader.  If you struggle with giving candid feedback, I highly encourage you to get this book and read it all the way through.  Who knows when a “Sarah” on your team may turn into a great partner because you bravely stepped outside your comfort zone?

Joan Marshall

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