Dreading a workplace conversation? Here's why (and how) to have it anyway

'Difficulty is strengthening,' expert says

Strong leadership requires difficult conversations—even when they push you out of your comfort zone, Deborah Rowland writes in Harvard Business Review

Rowland says her experience as a consultant and an executive at BBC Worldwide, PepsiCo, and Shell has taught her some hard truths about effective management. "In leadership roles the most important work often happens in the least comfortable spaces," she notes. And difficult conversations frequently "surface awkward facts [and] get to the source of organizational tensions," thereby helping to promote sound decision-making.

Yet many managers say they avoid difficult or awkward conversations because they are afraid of upsetting their colleagues. Most of the time, Rowland says the actual hesitation comes from "not being able to handle the conversation well."

Changing your approach

According to Rowland, there are four key ways leaders can improve their approach to difficult conversations.

Strive to see difficult conversations as a resource. Difficult conservations can improve performance by surfacing challenging, emotionally fraught issues, Rowland explains. For instance, one client she worked with recalls using a conversation about restructuring to gather important feedback and "build the levels of trust and openness among [her] team."

Learn to regulate your emotional response. It is not possible, or healthy, for leaders to suppress their emotions completely. But leaders should strive to use their emotions in a constructive way to ensure they are heard.

Tell it like it is, with compassion. Leaders need to balance "advocacy with inquiry," Rowland writes. When a difficult conversation prompts resistance from members of a team, it is important to be clear that that a decision is final—while still being respectful.

Build a psychological safety net. Take extra steps to make sure team members are comfortable during difficult conversations, Rowland advises. One leader she worked with recalls using appreciation and discussion aids to gather feedback from a new team he had just joined. He said to the team, "You've got hundreds of years of experience between you. I've got none. I want you to help me understand what's going well and what's not going so well."

What is the takeaway, according to Rowland? "Safety is perilous, and difficulty is strengthening" (Rowland, Harvard Business Review, 4/8).

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