Leaders must find a way to initiate the conversations that require courage.
The workplace has always offered plenty of kindling for simmering interpersonal tensions. Now, the pandemic and the transformations it has brought to our work lives have poured gallons of fuel into the mix.
Frustrations are brewing over back-to-the-office plans that don’t take employees’ voices into consideration; over poor working conditions for healthcare workers and other frontline workers throughout the Covid-19 crisis; and over the added pressures heaped onto employees as many of their colleagues leave their jobs as part of the Great Resignation.
These tensions are in addition to the ones we’ve always had—like dealing with poor performers, unfair policies, office politics, etc. It’s critical to get these tensions out in the open by talking about them. I’ve always believed that an organization’s leaders should make a concerted effort to spark and facilitate the types of conversations we all tend to avoid—the challenging ones. And why not start making time for that now? Think of it as spring cleaning.
Now more than ever, leaders must be the ones to model stepping up to open the necessary conversations with peers and direct reports that might be controversial, emotionally sensitive, or difficult to hear.
The reason this is true goes beyond the (important) aim of existing harmoniously with the people we work alongside every day. The fact is, as a leader you have an obligation to respectfully articulate your concerns and receive those that others share with you—because unless you do this, you’ll be blocked in achieving an even bigger goal: working to make things better within your broader organization.
WHY IT MATTERS:
Avoiding the big conversations has major costs.
I get it — being the one to initiate these conversations can be stressful, and if you perpetually avoid them, you’re not alone. Research from VitalSmarts suggests that over 80 percent of U.S. workers are shrinking from workplace conversations they know they need to have—and half of them resort to avoiding the person in question at all costs. One in 10 even report quitting their jobs to avoid the conversation.
What we see in our development programs mirrors this data. In the beginning, leaders tend to shy away from laying the real issues on the table, or they will come up and talk to us after the session. But as we prod deeper and as relations strengthen during the programs, leaders open up and speak the truth in direct, respectful manners. This, then, allows us to tackle the real challenges head-on and create sustainable change. In addition, leaders typically leave with homework to have one of the tough conversations they’ve been putting off and come back to report on it. The positive impact often goes beyond their own well-being and into general rapport, morale, and performance.
The bottom line is that this avoidance leads to emotional distress and significant cost to the organization. VitalSmarts also found that every crucial conversation that employees avoid costs their organization $7,500 and more than eight workdays.
WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND:
Honest conversations don’t have to be scary.
The good and bad news for leaders feeling burdened by the conversations that need to be had: The fact is, you do have power. As a leader, you need to play a role in not only passively noticing problems but in actively devising and implementing a solution.
Here are a few places to start:
- Focus on honest conversations. Lately, I’ve been thinking a reframing might be in order: Instead of labelling these conversations “tough” — or, for that matter, “crucial,” “confrontational,” or “difficult” — let’s bypass some of the frightening stigmas of those words. Let’s frame these instead as “honest” conversations. How would that change the way you approach these conversations?
- Be open and understanding. Try to avoid going into a conversation with black-and-white thinking. Spend time thinking about where a person with a conflicting view might be coming from. Run it by that person to be sure you understand.
- Bake it in to how you work. Build in regular time and space for your team to broach the conversations that might be challenging. Do what you can to make it safe to bring up topics they might be avoiding. Focus on the wins that emerge from these honest conversations.
In our Community of Leaders Development Programs, it’s very often the case that once someone breaks the ice and speaks the truth, they invite a cascade of the candid conversations that everyone has been needing to have. That’s one reason why leaders report feeling newly bonded to one another after going through our programs. Until you step up and do it, it’s hard to predict how summoning the courage to be real can open up good things for you, the people you work with, and your organization. This week, I challenge you to have a conversation you’ve been putting off.
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