How to have challenging conversations while maintaining trust

As a leader, you need to be able to broach challenging subjects with members of your team and others, while still maintaining effective relationships with them.

It’s a challenging skill to master. Some leaders try to avoid these conversations. Others go too far, crossing the line and attacking the person, rather than addressing the behaviour. Both approaches are destructive.

Fortunately, there is a better way.

There are a number of models that can be applied to help guide feedback conversations including the Centre for Creative Leadership’s widely used Situation Behaviour Impact model and Kim Scott’s Radical Candour approach. I find a model called DESC, originally developed by Bower & Bower, to be particularly effective in providing a structure for giving difficult feedback. It allows the issue to be tackled while keeping both people safe, and creates clarity around the path forward.

The DESC model

The DESC model works like this.

  1. DESCRIBE. What happened? Be specific and stick to the facts.
  2. EMOTION. Describe how this made you feel. This step is optional, and if you include it, keep it short (one sentence).
  3. STEPS. Explain the steps you would like the person to take. Typically, this should be a collaborative process. For example, “I’d like us to talk about what you can do differently in the future to achieve a better outcome”. However, if the person continues to not align with what has been agreed, or if the stakes are extremely high—such as when their behaviour is creating an occupational health and safety issue—a more directive approach may be needed: “Next time this happens, I expect you to…”. This also depends on the situation, power relativities, and other factors. Use your judgment.
  4. CONSEQUENCES. Explain the consequences of those steps. For example: “By ensuring your team gets their timesheets in on Fridays, we’ll be able to accurately allocate resources and ensure we aren’t losing money on projects”. Normally, the consequences should be positively framed around the benefits of making the behavioural change. Think carrot, not stick.

It is absolutely crucial that yourself and the person you are having the conversation with both walk away with a shared, unambiguous and specific agreement regarding the steps the person is going to take, and by when. It is not fair for you as leader to hold the other person accountable if they don’t understand your expectations. Your job as a leader is to set the bar for performance. Their job is to step up to that level. If a team member consistently demonstrates an inability to perform at the level required, then perhaps they’d be better suited to another role or working somewhere else.

Here are some broad guidelines to apply when using DESC (or any other feedback model):

  1. Stick to facts, be specific. Everything you say should be clearly and objectively true. Do not talk in generalities, or use emotive language. Otherwise a) you leave the door open for debate, and b) you come across as attacking the person, whereas you want to focus on changing the specific behaviour. “Every time I ask you to produce a report, it’s always late” is far too general. It’s better to say: “Last Wednesday we agreed that you would have that report to me by the end of the week. It’s now 5pm Monday, and I still haven’t received it”. This leaves no room for debate and challenges the behaviour, rather than the person.
  2. Have the conversation one-to-oneThe caveat here is that this model is not designed for situations where a HR or legal representative should be present. If in doubt, get HR/legal advice first.
  3. Be prepared. Like any new skill, challenging conversations take practice to master. So, until you get comfortable with applying the model, write down what you plan to say in advance and, ideally, role play with someone you trust. It soon becomes second nature.
  4. Do not be emotional. Be calm and stay calm (especially if the other person gets emotional), and avoid emotive language. This helps keep both you and the other person safe. This can be challenging to do, so prepare well before the conversation and think about what you are going to do if the other person gets upset or angry.
  5. Have the conversation ASAP. The sooner you have the conversation after the situation has occurred, the better. The longer you wait, the less impact the conversation will have. That said, if you (or they) are feeling really angry or upset about the situation, it’s best wait until everyone has calmed down before speaking about it (see point four above).
  6. Keep the conversation on track. The other person will often try to take the conversation off on a tangent or try and bring in other topics. Do not let this happen. Calmly let them know that (for example) you can discuss the other issue at another time, but that the focus of this conversation is [x]. Be a broken record if necessary. The idea is to calmly maintain boundaries.
  7. Hold them accountable. If they do not do what was agreed, then have another DESC conversation about that as soon as you can. If you don’t, you will be sending the message that you aren’t really serious about wanting them to change.

Showing leadership

No one likes to have challenging conversations with their people. However, these conversations are an integral part of effective leadership. Great leaders help their people step up and perform better, and feedback conversations are a crucial way to do this. To paraphrase Kim Scott, you need to care enough about your people to be prepared to have direct conversations with them. The DESC model provides a simple and effective framework to do so.

Next time a member of your team (or a colleague) behaves in a way that isn’t aligned with your values or expectations, give it a try. Not only will you be helping the individual, you will also be sending a clear message to everyone around you: “This is what we stand for, and I’m prepared to enforce those standards”. They will respect you for it—and you’ll feel pretty good about it, too.

Revel Gordon is a Sydney-based executive coach and facilitator. 

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