Why Having the “Tough Conversations” Shows Care

Have you ever had the feeling of real dread when you know you have to have one of those tough conversations with a sub-ordinate? What am I going to say? How can I say it so that she is not upset? She is a great worker but the wheels just came off and I need to deal with it, but how?

And then the day passes and you have not had the conversation and your feel somewhat relieved.  The next day puts some space between you and the event and suddenly the issue doesn’t seem so bad.  So, maybe I won’t say anything.  And you don’t…

Six weeks later and it happens again and now you are really mad. You don’t think about it, you don’t do all the check questioning; you go straight in and deal with the issue… and it goes badly.

If this is familiar to you, I hope the article below can assist you with this very common leadership. All leaders have to face this sort of challenge. The task is to turn it into a constructive and positive experience for both parties.

Those Tough Conversations we all Dread

We have all been there and struggled with these conversations in our heads long before they happen; if indeed they happen at all.  Our experience at Schuitema is that this is the most common leadership failing. More than anything, leaders struggle to show up with courage in these situations. This is understandable because it is difficult. It takes exceptional leadership character to appropriately deal with poor performance and challenge unacceptable behaviour.

The key to getting these conversations right is to understand WHY you are having the conversation in the first place.  Once you are clear on this, the rest will flow.

At Schuitema, we have been working with leaders at all levels in varied industries across the globe since the 1990’s. We understand that leaders neglect these tough conversations because they have not asked the WHY question.  “Why am I having this conversation?”

Inverting the Means and the End

Some readers who have followed the Schuitema work and know the Care & Growth model will recall that “inverting the Means and End” is one of the keys to being trusted by sub-ordinates.  Consider the following two situations:

Situation 1: “Joe, in 2010 I had to do the same piece of work that you have to do and what I did worked, don’t argue with me, just do as I say.

Situation 2:  “Fred in 2010 I had to do the same piece of work that you have to do and what I did worked, it may be helpful to you to take a look at how I did it.

What is the difference between the Joe and the Fred situations?  One difference is that Joe has no choice, he has to do what he has been told. Fred on the other hand does have a choice.  The boss is being autocratic with Joe while with Fred he is being more democratic.

The difference between earning trust or not is in your perceived intent

This is not the difference that matters though. The real difference emerges when you examine who is the beneficiary in each situation. In Joe’s case, the boss is the beneficiary because he gets what he wants.  The reason why he is engaging with Joe is to get what he wants. His agenda is to serve his own need to get the work done.  In Joe’s experience, he is being used as the means, as a human resource, to get a task done.

In Fred’s case, on the other hand, Fred is the beneficiary of the interaction. Fred’s boss is generously sharing his previous experience to help Fred do a great job.  He is not using Fred to accomplish an end. Rather, the boss is being helpful to Fred in the situation. His motive or his intent is not to get anything from Fred, it is rather to give something to Fred.

To do this, the boss has done what we refer to as “inverting the Means and End”; i.e. he has used the task as the Means to enable the person to learn and grow.  The person is the End, the person is the reason he does what he does. The intent of the boss is benevolent and not malevolent.

Developing Trust by Being Tough

This is what makes a leadership relationship legitimate; when the sub-ordinate experiences the boss as being there to pay attention to what he/she needs in each situation.  “This person is here to help me and not to help himself”. Trust develops in leadership relationships where the boss is there for his people; and not the other way around; such as the situation with Joe above.

Trustworthiness is about being appropriate, not about being nice

So does this means that you must always be nice? Our answer is that you do not need to be nice, you need to be appropriate. You need to do what is best in the situation that you are in. That may not always be nice.  It is your intent as a leader that will help you to respond appropriately in each situation.  If you are you doing this to Give something, you will probably get it right and be experienced as having benevolent intent but if you are doing this to Get something, even if it is disguised by you being nice to the person, in time you will be experienced as having malevolent intent.

If I compliment you on doing a good job, I am being nice to you… why am I complimenting you? Is it to motivate you to do it again tomorrow or is it because I am genuinely appreciative of your efforts?  Let us examine the intent in each of these two responses.  If I am motivating you to do it again tomorrow, as the boss I am the beneficiary and this is similar to the Joe situation.

If I genuinely appreciate your efforts, you are the beneficiary of my thanks, there is nothing in it for me in the first instance because I am not doing this to get something.  I am simply doing the right thing and expressing my appreciation without any expectation of tomorrow.  Even so, people do tend to push themselves harder when they are appreciated by their boss on a regular basis.

Whose interests are being served

People grant or withhold trust on the basis of their perception of whose interests they believe that you are serving. This has little to do with biographical features, personality type, and intellect, level of interpersonal skill, managerial style or behaviour. It has everything to do with what is inside, it has everything to do with the intent of the boss.

When it comes to tough conversations, you have to ask the question of whose interests are being served if you don’t have the tough conversation.  The sub-ordinate may feel relieved that she gets away with it in the beginning but in the long term, she is not going to learn and grow, she is not the beneficiary.  The boss is the beneficiary because he does not want to risk upsetting a good performer who has had a bad day, in other words the boss is unwilling to put his needs aside to serve the needs of the sub-ordinate.

This is a test of your intent and if you get this right, the tough conversations will take place for the right reasons and the sub-ordinate may feel upset in the first instance but if she experiences you as doing this to help her to learn and grow, she will appreciate and apply the feedback and the trust between you will get stronger over time.

Making the Choice to Have Tough Conversations Reflects Intent 

For most leaders this does not come naturally, in fact, as human beings we struggle to be tough on our colleagues, our friends, our siblings and it takes a real effort to say what needs to be said.  We only get it right when we stop and think about the reason for having the conversation and if it is to serve the interests of the other, it is time to man-up and do the right thing.  Of course it is going to be difficult but because we make the deliberate choice to put our needs aside as a leader, the more that we will earn the trust of our people will trust you.

So, the next time you are forced to put yourself out of your comfort zone to have one of these conversations, ask yourself why this is an important conversation.  If your intention as the leader is to finally let her have a piece of your mind, then your intent is to serve your own interests and it will not work.  However, if it is for the growth and the learning of this person who has the potential to do so much better, you can bet on it, you will be experienced as a leader who genuinely has the interests of your people at heart precisely because you are willing to be tough on them.

If you want to read more on the topic, I recommend reading Leadership: The Care and Growth Model.

Otherwise, connect with us on our LinkedIn Group

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