From discussions about burnout, stress, workplace safety, the great resignation, and workplace inequality – chances are – leaders have had to navigate difficult conversations more frequently than ever before over the past 20 months.
In fact, a recent survey from SHRM found “41% of U.S. employees feel burnt out from work while another 23% report feeling depressed.” The survey also identified that a large set of employees are “struggling with negative emotions, concentration, and motivation.”
As these challenging discussions continue to occur between employees and leaders, even the most skilled leader may walk away from each conversation with the question, “did that go well?” ruminating in their mind.
While there is no magic blueprint for navigating difficult conversations, leaders may be missing out on key opportunities to connect and effect change with their employees during these talks. To optimize their approach, there are a few best practices leaders can implement into their communication arsenal and a few common pitfalls leaders should keep in mind to ensure they are tackling difficult conversations in a manner that provides positive outcomes for both their employees and the organization. Here are some common pitfalls for leaders
Taking a rational approach to an emotional problem.
One of the first mistakes leaders can make in their approach to a hot button issue is finding a rational solution to an emotional problem. Let’s face it, life is messy, and sometimes there is no direct path in solving a particular issue. Tackling a difficult conversation in this manner becomes a square peg round hole scenario and may inevitably push away the employee as they do not feel heard or understood.
Approaching the conversation from an internalized perspective.
For example, let’s say an employee has booked time on your calendar to discuss the issue at hand. Understandably, from the leader’s perspective, the question they start their thought process with as they prepare for the meeting may be, “What does my audience need to experience before committing to what I need them to?”
Unfortunately, that’s the wrong question, as it creates an internally-focused mindset and positions the conversation through the leader’s biases, filters, and expectations – not the employees.
For example, in his 2011 book, Psychology, Peter O. Gray cites an example of how internalized biases can go array in a clinical setting, writing “a doctor who has jumped to a particular hypothesis as to what disease a patient has may then ask questions and look for evidence that tends to confirm that diagnosis while overlooking evidence that would tend to disconfirm it.” Bringing an internalized perspective to a workplace conversation as a leader is akin to approaching the symptom and not the disease.
Enforcing compliance versus commitment
To build employee loyalty and longevity, leaders need to build an experience that allows employees to align themselves with the company’s goals. Wagging fingers at employees and telling them what to do is the wrong approach as it creates an impersonal experience and relegates commitment to compliance, ultimately stifling productivity and ownership.
Workplace commitment requires creating an environment where the employee aligns their self-image with what they are being asked to do. According to the employee platform, Smarp, 69% of employees say they’d work harder if they were better appreciated. Fostering appreciation from a leaders-to-employee standpoint starts with building long-term commitment.
Tackling difficult conversations with a Three-Step Approach
Leaders generally overestimate the understanding they have of what their employees are thinking. To avoid a scenario where difficult conversations fall flat, leaders can begin by adopting a three-step approach to create an environment that allows leaders and employees to arrive at the core truth by building understanding, commitment, and trust.
Playing the long game
As leaders prepare for these conversations, they must gain a complete understanding of the employee’s long-term goals within the organization and identify vital short-term goals for the employee that can help them arrive at the long-term goal. For leaders, it’s about playing the long game. Leaders are often operating under stress, and it is easier to focus on short-term tactical goals to immediately relieve the present stress. However, if these short-term tactics do not build up the larger picture, they only serve as a band-aid for the current issue instead of a long-term resolution. Therefore, leaders must show up to the conversation with a complete understanding of the employee’s long-term goals. Before the meeting, leaders should conduct adequate research to gather all pertinent information from the employee’s colleagues, direct managers, and additional stakeholders who work closely with the employee to bring a well-rounded understanding.
Encourage employees to always protect their self-image throughout the conversation
In building commitment versus compliance, leaders need to encourage employees to protect their self-image during these conversations. In short, refrain from speaking to employees like a parent. People react the strongest to what they hear first. Because employees perceive how leaders communicate down as proof of how much they are respected, leaders need to encourage their employees to protect their self-image during these conversations.
Leaders need to think through the message they will be looking to communicate during the meeting and ensure that they’re doing their best to frame the message around the employee’s perspective on their concerns and motivations – not the leaders. In understanding these circumstances, leaders will be able to connect with employees in a manner that they did not expect, as the leader will feel heard and seen.
Build ongoing trust through post-conversation follow-ups
Leaders need to build trust over time with their employees, especially as they tackle difficult situations. One way leaders can prove to their employees that they genuinely heard their employees and are there to help facilitate a clear path forward for them is through the process of following up. For example, leaders can use a takeaway from their conversation and give it back to the employee at another time – hopefully at an unsolicited and unrequested time – to demonstrate that the leader actively listened to the employee and continued fomenting trust in the relationship. A recent report by ADP demonstrates the effectiveness of building trust, with individuals being 12 times more likely to be engaged when they trust their leader. Additionally, leaders need to stick to their word and do what they say they would during the conversation.
Tackling difficult conversations requires a mind-shift
For leaders, listening equals learning. When it comes to effectively navigating difficult conversations, it’s about creating an environment in which the employee can be pleasantly surprised by the leader’s ability to develop genuine bonds in a situation that could have otherwise become adversarial. It requires leaders to set the stage by providing an environment that incorporates proper understanding, allows the employee to protect their self-image, and builds trust by showing the leader is ready to follow up and advocate for the employee.
While it may seem like a simple switch, leaders need to be wary that they do not fall into the trap of approaching an emotional conversation from a rational-only perspective, bringing their own biases into the conversation, and enforcing compliance versus commitment.