Afraid of the Difficult Conversations

“We’ve all been there: We know we must talk to a colleague, our boss or even a friend about something we know will be at least uncomfortable and at worst explosive. So we repeatedly mull it over until we can no longer put it off, and then finally stumble through a confrontation when we could have had a conversation.” – Douglas Stone

Have you ever a situation where the action of one of your team members has a negative impact on the rest of the team?  You know the kind of situation I’m referring to – when one of your team members isn’t carrying their weight.  Or fails to follow through on their commitments.  Or whose behavior is offensive, disrespectful, or simply counter-productive.

It happens all of the time.  We are human.  And we aren’t perfect.  Sometimes there are events outside work that distract us from contributing to the team.  Or we allow circumstances to impact our attitude.  Perhaps we aren’t even aware that our style is disruptive to others.  Whatever the situation, there are plenty of times when a team’s rhythm is impacted by the action of one of its team members.

But what’s concerning is how often management (or even fellow team members) fail to address those issues, allowing the behavior to compromise the performance of a team.  We shy away from the conflict and avoid the difficult conversations that would correct those issues and return the team to performing.  I believe one of the biggest failures of most leadership is the inability to address these issues in a timely and appropriate manner.

Why do we avoid conflict?  Why do we allow negative elements to exist within our teams?  And why are we so uncomfortable in correcting negative performance or behavior and instead allow it to persist?  I guess it’s human nature.  It is much easier to avoid that to address.  Besides, no one likes to have a difficult conversation with one of their team members.  I mean, God forbid you might offend them.

I have to admit, I don’t like difficult conversations.  My leadership style is much more focused on creating harmony within a team and emphasizing the positive elements of a team’s dynamics.

But failing to have those difficult conversations when needed often does more harm than good.  Not only does it diminish the performance of the team, but it breeds frustration and mistrust.  Eventually the team loses “lost faith” in management’s ability to lead them.   High performing members of the team lose their motivation to outperform.  Or worse, they leave.  And over time the team begins mirroring the same negative behavior that derailed their performance in the first place.

So how can you overcome the “fear of conflict” and have those difficult conversations that are sometimes needed?  Here are a few thoughts that might help you overcome this challenge in a productive manner:

  • Don’t Presume Malice – Most people aren’t even aware of their behavior.  Or of how poor their performance may have drifted.  I’m startled by how many times I share a perspective with team members only to find they are surprised to realize their actions
  • It’s Nothing Personal – Your conversations should NEVER be personal attacks on the individual. They should be factual, and focused on the impact it may have to others.  I once learned a technique for giving feedback that suggested all difficult conversations start with this framework:  “When you did (or do) X, others perceive Y”.
  • Empathy Always Helps – Recognize your own faults as a leader and share situations where similar feedback helped you overcome challenges of a similar nature.  People always respond better when they feel you understand their situation.
  • Honest, but not Brutally Honest – Your job as a leader (or a concerned team member) is to help the team return to a state of performance.  And honesty is often needed to address challenges the team faces.  But don’t make it a trial.  You don’t need to present your case as if you are a prosecuting lawyer.  Be honest, but with compassion, sharing only what is necessary and constructive.
  • Reset Expectations – An important but often overlooked piece of the conversation.  You’ll need to agree on the expectations from your conversation if you are to address the issues.
  • Feedback is a Gift – Lastly, both of you must recognize that feedback is a gift.  You can’t change behavior if you don’t know it exists.  Or more importantly, if you don’t realize the impact it has on others.  Embrace feedback as something valuable, as it truly is a gift.

Remember, leadership is as much about action as it is about words.  Don’t be the type of leader who lets their fear of conflict destroy the performance of their team.


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