One of the most common challenges I see among leaders is unwillingness to have difficult conversations. It is a very common issue for leaders to be unable to be direct with others about failures to perform and their roles in problems. I seldom see swift, effective feedback that communicates disappointment with another person’s behavior. The trouble is, none of us grow without pain.
The thing is, people are far more resilient than it seems. In fact, people aspiring to leadership will actively seek direct feedback, even if it hurts. I don’t have specific data about exactly what stops leaders from being direct, but after working with them for so many years my observation is that the issue is more about fear of being rejected, abandoned, or simply not knowing how to proceed that stops leaders from being as direct as they could be.
Direct conversations don’t have to be dreaded, awful experiences. Magic can show up when you are very committed to another person’s well-being and success and you deliver very direct and specific feedback about shortfalls. One of the “Operating Principles” we recommend using is “Be direct and sensitive.” The sensitive dimension speaks to the importance of staying connected with the other person and keeping your intention to contribute to them top of mind while you are providing feedback. Very direct communication is possible when connection is maintained.
If change is needed within your team, or from a specific team member it requires intervention in the current mindset and change does not generally happen without some form of resistance, upset, and pain.
However, it is actually insulting and/or demeaning to another person to assume they cannot handle the truth. I’m not saying they will be thrilled to hear it, but the vast majority of people come to work every day intending to be successful contributors. Almost no one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says “I’m going to be a jerk at work today.” Unfortunately, most of us have jerky things we do and no one ever tells us. They gossip around the water cooler instead and nothing changes.
The issue can become trickier with peers, e.g. leaders of other divisions and departments, etc. This can feel very risky in the sense that if I give you very direct feedback about your failures and shortcomings, you may think you can do the same back to me. The dynamic can play out as “I won’t call you on yours if you don’t call me on mine.”
The typical starting place for leadership improvement in this area would be to go start giving direct feedback to others. However, I am going to suggest a different place to start. Instead, start with yourself. Go ask for some tough, direct feedback on what drives other people nuts about you. It may sting, but it will give you insight on where you can improve and increase the effectiveness of your interactions. It will also give you perspective on effective, (and ineffective), ways to be direct with others.
No one will stop doing the dysfunctional things they don’t know they are doing. After you have spent a little time receiving feedback and observing how it lands with you, then take on giving more powerful feedback to others. If you can build this skill the results will definitely be worthwhile.