Leadership

It’s 90% will, 10% skill: How to master tough conversations

Martin Moore /

tough feedback conversations

Martin Moore and Emma Green, co-founders of Your CEO Mentor. Source: Supplied.

Many leaders are held back by conflict aversion, an issue that affects virtually every area of their performance. The symptoms of conflict aversion are nowhere more prevalent than in the one-on-one feedback conversations that leaders hold when they deliver tough feedback. Getting this under control is 90% will and 10% skill.

So how do you master the will to hold tough feedback conversions?

Conflict aversion consumes many leaders in a one-on-one situation, and I have seen it kill many a promising leader’s career. I have worked with an incredible number of smart people who have difficulty simply holding a respectful, robust, honest, connected conversation with their people.

There are many cultural and social reasons for this. Everyone struggles with it. The challenge is to get over it and move past the innate fear of conflict to become a strong, capable leader.

The good news is that anyone can master this. In the early stages of my leadership career, I was as bad as any of you and worse than most. But in the last 15 years, I have not had a moment’s hesitation in holding any feedback conversation, no matter how difficult.

If you have any aspirations of being a great leader, this is the price of admission. You have to ask yourself whether your commitment to being a great leader is strong enough to overcome the fear or discomfort you might feel in these one-on-one situations. And there are no shortcuts to take, or workarounds you can make. You will either decide to do this, or you won’t.

Because we are human, there are a thousand ways to rationalise why we avoid tough feedback conversations with our people. Do any of these ring a bell?

  • ‘What if the conversation escalates into conflict?’
  • ‘I shouldn’t criticise, as I don’t want to be negative or demotivate my people.’
  • ‘I don’t really have enough evidence or examples.’
  • ‘What if they disagree with my assessment of the situation?’
  • ‘What if I haven’t set them up for success? Maybe it’s my fault.’
  • ‘Maybe I am asking too much of them … am I too demanding?’
  • ‘They will improve under my leadership (which is the height of arrogance).’
  • ‘If I give them more time they will be okay (which is the height of futility).’

If you avoid tough conversations, when you do eventually have to hold one, the dread and fear is self-reinforcing. Let me explain: when you are fearful of a conversation, you handle it poorly and it doesn’t go well. You have just reinforced to yourself that having a difficult conversation is really hard, and that you don’t like having them. After that, you do anything to avoid those situations, all the while rationalising why you don’t need to have the conversation, or fooling yourself that it is not a priority compared to your other ‘busy work’.

Here are five reasons to overcome your fears, and work on becoming a leader who has difficult performance conversations whenever they are required, with no hesitation whatsoever.

Think of these as the ‘lenses’ you can look through to change your perspective, or to tip the balance in your favour, so that you will do the work of leadership, instead of either wallowing in fear, or deluding yourself with rationalisation.

1. You have a duty of care to your people

Duty of care is all about the obligation to people to ensure they have competent leadership. This should be a right for every individual, not a privilege.

Leaders need to be able to command the respect of their teams, and hold them to account, not just for following rules and procedures, but for ensuring their behaviours are appropriate for the risks at hand. This is impossible unless you, and the leaders below you, are all comfortable with holding difficult conversations.

If you don’t address performance issues in the leaders below, you are placing your people in harm’s way, and risking their physical, psychological, and emotional safety.

2. You can’t get results from a sub-par team

The foremost job of a leader is to build a high performing team that delivers results — it is best for the organisation, it is best for your people, and it is best for you.

It is impossible to build a high performing team, unless you can challenge, coach, and confront your people to bring out their best. This is done eyeball to eyeball, in the difficult conversations that most leaders avoid; but if you can push through your fear and discomfort, the payback is incalculable.

3. Your people deserve the opportunity to improve

I can’t count the number of people I have given feedback to about an obvious issue with their performance or behaviour, who have never heard it before.

A succession of leaders have simply left them unchecked, either because they are setting a very low standard or, more likely, because it’s easier than having a difficult feedback conversation.

If you are one of those leaders, there is no other way to say this: you are robbing your people of the opportunity to improve, and it compounds over time.

As a leader, I’m not sure how you can sleep at night while avoiding an obvious issue that needs to be addressed, simply because you feel uncomfortable about having an honest conversation with them.   

4. Everyone knows the strong and weak performers

Not managing weak performers marks you as a weak leader, and good people leave. One of the things that constantly amazes me is that leaders think that other people can’t see performance problems in their peers or leaders, which is ridiculous. Everyone knows!

If you don’t deal with the poor performers, you kill the culture of your team. Your good people get demotivated when they don’t see poor performers being dealt with, and they start to underperform themselves (until, of course, they become dissatisfied with their own performance, and decide to move on).

If you are a weak leader, your good performers won’t respect you, and your poor performers will take advantage of you.  

5. If worst comes to worst, and you need to let someone go, you need to be confident that you have done everything you could have done to help them

Sometimes people choose not to perform, and you have to make a tough decision to let them go. How will you feel, if you haven’t given them a fair opportunity to improve?

Everyone chooses how they perform and behave, and sometimes this has nothing to do with you. You may have done everything right as a leader and, despite this, they just won’t make it.

But, before you take that difficult step, which will no doubt have a significant impact on someone’s life, don’t you want to be 100% comfortable that you did everything you possibly could to help them?

Looking through the lens of the ‘worst case scenario’, will that push you into action to hold tough feedback conversations when they need to be held?

When trying to master the will and discipline to hold tough feedback conversations, these five lenses will move you to action, rather than procrastinating or rationalising. From there, it’s like learning to ski in deep powder snow — the more you do of it, the more comfortable it will feel, and the better you will become.

NOW READ: Just ask: Four ways startups can create a culture of feedback just like Canva’s

NOW READ: Six tips for presenting tough information to staff

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Martin Moore

Martin is a leadership and organisational performance expert and the founder of Your CEO Mentor. Before this, he was the chief executive officer at CS Energy.