Honest moment: I hate difficult conversations! Difficult conversations keep me awake at night, make me second guess my leadership, make me worry about the person for days to follow, and push me into countless conversations with mentors about whether I’m doing the right thing. This is one part of leadership that if I never had to do again, it would be too soon.
However, I recognize that those wishes are not only unrealistic but unhealthy. Loving leaders have hard conversations as we are dedicated to developing those God has given us to lead. Having hard conversations that leaves everyone whole and moving forward is part of their development and ours.
Hard conversations first require a hard-inner look. Ask yourself:
- Was the person trained properly?
- Did we reinforce what we needed them to do?
- Did we give them the tools to do it?
- Do we give them the time to make the change?
- Were we judging them with a clean slate without drudging up past mistakes?
- Was it really a performance issue or was there a personality clash that we might be struggling with because of our own biases, preferences, or hang ups?
Quality of a Good Leader
Leaders owe it to our teams to be honest with ourselves without projecting onto others. Very rarely is failure (Yes, failure! It is inevitable if anyone is in this long enough) one-sided. If difficulty with an individual is ongoing, a good leader wants to know if we’ve done everything we can to set them up to win. After all measures have been taken to ensure success, then a leader can have a conversation knowing that you did your best before asking someone else if they are giving theirs.
Take data or examples of what needs to be corrected in order to minimize subjective statements that might be driven by emotions. Concrete examples clarifies communication. It removes the gray from the sky and the mud from the water. If someone is continuously late, it is best to provide specific examples rather than saying, “We’ve discussed you coming in earlier.” If someone’s tone is more abrasive than helpful, point out: “Do you remember when you said [exact verbiage] to [exact person]? This is what I mean by being harsh.”
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Most people want to be successful. Nobody wants to be a failure. What success looks like can be very different depending on the lens one is peering through. Data and examples help to ensure everyone is looking at the same picture from the same angle through the same lens. Paint a clear and accurate picture of what has gone wrong and then give examples or directives on how to make it right.
Leading Others to Success
Data and examples help us address the behavior and not demean the person. We are in the business of helping people to be wholly who God created them to be. We can’t also be in the business of breaking people through personal attacks. Addressing the behavior preserves the person and affirms the belief that they can be and do better. Even when the issue might be about a moral failure and not a concern of skill or talent, affirm who God created them to be, that they are supported and loved, and expected to be better after this. Take the opportunity to provide encouraging suggestions to right the wrong and move forward. Leave clear directions for what you expect to happen next.
Unclear directives leave room for interpretation and confusion. If a hard conversation is necessary, it might be that expectations were never clearly established. Or maybe too many expectations were given at once. Whatever the cause, take this opportunity to point the person in a new direction. Point out what is not working so well and then give specific examples or directives that will make the situation better. Take the guesswork out of it and give specifics until you both can get on the same page of expectations.
It is important to give people liberties to execute vision, to give away leadership. But if you are having a hard conversation, giving specifics during correction provides a certain level of security and confidence in regard to their next steps. Take this opportunity to be exact. When the situation is corrected, hopefully new skills have been learned and leadership can be given away again because growth and development has occurred.
Hard conversations do not have to be destructive conversations. Diamonds are able to come out of coal when they are masterfully pressurized not half-heartedly heated. Hard conversations, applying pressure to areas where change is required, is a necessary component of leadership. As leaders, we get the privilege of stewarding some coal-like situations, using heat, pressure, and wisdom to turn those situations into diamonds that beautify God’s glory.
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