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  • Writer's pictureDr. Christine Senn, PhD

Leadership: Difficult Conversations are Essential

Some people find difficult conversations to be frightening or rude. In fact, at least one study{1} suggests that nearly 70% of people avoid difficult conversations in the workplace. This leads to low morale, a toxic work environment, and damage to organizational performance and profit margins.

I follow the school of thought that every issue is either a “people” problem or a “process” problem. The only way to solve either one is to have an honest conversation. In my opinion, the 70% of people who avoid these conversations are not going to be good managers or leaders until they learn this skill.

The most critical tip is to always assume first that you have a process problem. Go into any situation wondering how to brainstorm the problem so that the process improves. I create many brainstorming meetings with people I think can contribute to improving the process. It’s not the same people every time, because that would become stale; it’s always people who either are creative brainstormers by nature, or who know enough about the process to think about how it could be done differently without becoming entrenched with their particular idea. Improving a process fixes nearly every issue.

If the process has been improved and most everyone is doing well with it, those who aren’t are the problem. You have a couple of options here. If you avoid an honest conversation, you will watch the person continue to perform poorly, in which case you will ultimately terminate them for poor performance, or they will leave because they feel like a failure. Your company or your department will suffer the entire time.

Instead, be brave. Have the difficult conversation with the person, and do so from a place of trust and acceptance. No matter how poor someone’s performance, I’ve never met anyone who has done poorly on purpose. People genuinely want to succeed. They might make bad choices, but that probably means we didn’t give them enough information to make good choices. They might prioritize tasks inappropriately, but that’s on us as leaders for not sharing our vision with them.

If you go into these conversations truly believing that you and the employee have the best interest of the company at heart, then a difficult conversation isn’t all that difficult. You’re trying to help them save their job; you’re trying to make you clients happy; you’re trying to make the department or the company better. There’s absolutely nothing negative in there, which is why I don’t personally ever find a conversation difficult. In fact, instead of calling these conversations difficult, let’s call them honest and forthright.

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