Although many leaders might avoid tough conversations, it’s critical to provide feedback, both positive and negative, to help your employees learn and grow. A courageous conversation is when a leader takes control of a situation by confidently and courageously embracing a difficult conversation.
If these discussions were simple, they would not be labeled by leaders as “hard conversations.” True success and teamwork can only be achieved through the art of a courageous conversation. Below are my tips on how to get started:
1. Know why you are considering a courageous conversation.
In every action, you must understand the impetus for progress or impediments to success. Ask yourself the following questions to build an objective foundation for the discussion:
• What result is driving the need for improvement?
• What exactly is the behavior causing a problem?
• What is the impact the behavior is having?
• Was the expectation made explicitly clear?
• Where is the shortfall in performance?
• Does the individual clearly understand what’s expected of them?
• Did the individual make an incorrect decision?
• Was the individual properly trained?
2. Choose whether to have a courageous conversation.
When considering a courageous conversation, a leader must define the bias for action — or accept the results of inaction. To do this, you must first consider:
• The consequences of not having a courageous conversation.
• If you are willing to own that your leadership inaction contributed to the resulting outcome.
3. Understand the objective of the courageous conversation
Like a military operation, success must be defined before undertaking action. Simply answer two questions:
• What are you trying to achieve?
• What is a successful outcome?
This way, you know exactly what your goal is before heading into the discussion.
4. Consider the situation from the other’s shoes.
As in most aspects of leadership, empathy is critical in courageous conversations — it helps build trust. If your employees don’t trust you, you are merely their manager — and not their leader. To emerge closer as a team, you must care about understanding why the person is acting a certain way. To do this, ask yourself how you as a leader contributed to the situation? How did your organization fail to empower them for success?
5. Choose your emotions.
Each person and situation are unique. As a leader, you are a coach who must embrace each employee and equip them with the necessary tools and techniques to be successful. Deliberately think about the emotional mindset you need to lead a calm, productive conversation. Realize that emotions manifest not only in your words but also in the tone of your voice, the expressions on your face and the language of your body.
6. Know how to open.
The tone of any interaction is set in the opening seconds. Rehearse opening movements so they naturally flow. Pick a location appropriate to the situation. Let the individual know your intention so they don’t feel blindsided, which drives defensiveness and anger. The more prepared you are for the conversation, the smoother it will flow.
7. Know your individual.
As a leader, it’s important to know your team. This might mean knowing childrens’ names for some or that others enjoy flying. Let your team know you care by showing an interest in them as individuals, including their performance, life, dreams and potential.
8. Have an inquiry mindset.
Reflect on your attitude toward the person involved and the situation itself, as your mindset will drive your demeanor and reactions. Ask open-ended questions during the discussion, and reserve final judgment until after you have all the facts. Throughout the conversation, ensure your demeanor encourages discussion, not an interrogation. Remember, you are working toward a solution together, so concentrate and reflect on the way the person feels.
9. Be consistent in your leadership.
Consistently lead your team. This means holding high- and low-performers to the same standards. Consistency allows for factual measurement, creates accountability, maintains your message and establishes your reputation. Don’t bend standards to avoid a courageous conversation.
10. Use facts.
When presenting details of the behavior or performance in question, use factual data to avoid disagreements, and set clear, measurable and achievable goals to guide future behavior. These goals represent a picture of success that can help determine a corrective path. While as a leader you should discourage excuses, it is critical to understand explanations along the path to performance. These explanations often pave the path to how you ended up where you are and will create a course for improvement.
11. Be positive.
Regardless of the negative topic, always set an optimistic and positive tone for the interaction. Negative approaches are often met with defensive and argumentative responses. It is your task to not only address negative behavior but also pave a path of development with the tools and resources they can use to improve. Make the conversation an open dialogue, not a one-sided presentation. Ultimately, your goal is for them to walk away motivated to improve, not scared of retribution.
12. Follow up.
After the initial conversation is over, ensure you readdress with the individual after the right amount of time has passed. Follow up on the emotional aspect of the conversation within the next few days, then readdress the resulting improvement in actions or results within the next month. Offer a pat on the back for improvement or a reaffirmation of the original issue. If a situation required an initial hard conversation, it deserves closure.
13. Preserve the relationship.
An emotionally intelligent leader should be mindful to limit any damage to a relationship. If not careful, you can destroy in minutes what took years to build. Always be aware of the growth a conversation can enable, as well as the walls a poorly held conversation could construct.
Leadership means you are responsible for the livelihoods of those entrusted to your care. You are accountable for successes, failures, growth and performance plateaus. Every action, reaction and inaction will define your leadership presence. Be invested in employees’ success, even when a courageous conversation is required, and they will respect you more for the care and attention you devote to them.