Do these thoughts sound familiar? “I don’t want to tick that person off.” “I don’t have time to deal with people’s feelings.” “Don’t rock the boat.” “Maybe if I ignore it, the problem will go away.” “I do not want to have that hard conversation.”
It has been difficult for me to have hard conversations with people — conversations where you must give an honest, direct, painful message to someone. It’s even more difficult when the person with whom you’re communicating tends to be volatile. One day, I had an epiphany when considering why this was so difficult for me. I don’t like dealing with people’s negative emotions. Why? Because negative emotions make me feel out of control. They are unpredictable and intimidating.
Early in my career, I attempted to “keep the peace” by dodging negative emotions by avoiding hard conversations. There was a time when the errors for a department I oversaw drastically increased. This uptick in errors was getting noticed by my senior leaders. Unfortunately, many mistakes were attributed to a very volatile employee in my department, whom we’ll call John. John did not like being held accountable. His eyes would turn red, and he would visibly shake when confronted with perceived criticism. At times, I thought he might physically attack me.
Initially, I kept the peace in my department by avoiding John and overlooking the minor errors. However, this lack of leadership eventually caught up to me. Ignoring John’s performance and behavior issues only worsened for the business and the other employees. Eventually, I realized peacekeeping was a dereliction of my leadership responsibility.
Toxic organizational culture is perpetuated in the absence of difficult conversations. Some conversations are unavoidable. In the short term, it is safer to avoid a hard conversation. However, the cost of not having them is far greater. Avoidance costs may include high turnover, poor morale and struggling organizational performance.
Leaders are given resources and authority to move forward with organizational mission and vision. One aspect of leadership authority involves the courage to have hard conversations. To avoid these conversations is an abandonment of responsibility. Ultimately, a leader’s peacekeeping strategy may cause more problems than it solves.
So, how does a peacekeeping leader develop the courage to have hard conversations? It starts with reframing our mindset from that of peacekeeping to peacemaking. While peacekeeping engenders avoidance, peacemaking thoughtfully embraces conflict. A peacemaker is willing to address hard problems. They realize that making peace does not mean the elimination of people’s negative emotions. Instead, they recognize that the full range of positive and negative emotions is part of being human. Peacemaking involves solving “people problems” honestly, directly and clearly. A peacemaker places a higher value on what is good for the people and the organization. Consequently, peacemakers can make peace in places where negative tensions exist.
A few common tips for peacemakers needing to have hard conversations include: (1) Clarify the purpose of the conversation and what outcomes you hope to achieve. (2) Seek out a private and comfortable space where you won’t be interrupted. (3) Articulate the issue or concern at hand. (4) Focus on the behavior or performance, not the person. (5) Allow the employee to express their perspective without interruption. (6) Summarize the person’s point of view. (7) Document expectations and set realistic goals for improvement. (8) Schedule follow-up meetings to track progress and provide ongoing support.
The path of least resistance (peacekeeping) is always easier in the short term. However, a flourishing organization comprises peacemakers committed to solving the root of problems.
Erik Dees, PhD., is a partner with Milestone Leadership. Milestone Leadership’s Mission is to “Build Leaders Worth Following.” He can be reached at 319-504-3083. The opinions expressed are those of the author.