Recently in my coaching sessions with several government managers, I found a reluctance to engage in conversations that would open up and potentially deal with sensitive, difficult issues. This is a common problem I see with managers and is part of learning how to effectively manage up.
Part of the fear of having these conversations is that to do so could present a “career limiting move.” Wanting to please your boss and not make waves can lead to unintended consequences such as blowups among staff, decreased morale and other forms of dysfunction that lead to inefficiency and disengagement among staff. The challenge for managers is to be able to engage in powerful conversations that address issues senior management needs to hear about without the fear of retribution or creating an impression that you can’t handle the job. The failure to have these conversations abdicates your reponsibility as a leader and effective manager. As Sandor Kovacs said,” Anything that you are unwilling to communicate creates waste in an organization.”
The coaching issue, as I see it, is to help managers gain skill in being able to hold powerful conversations, and by doing so, build a trusting relationship with senior managers and direct reports that creates tighter alignment around shared goals and addresses things that get in the way of effective execution.
Suzi Pomerantz, a well known executive coaching in the Washington DC area, has some useful ideas around how to hold powerful conversations, even to design pre-conversations leading up to a difficult conversation. In her article, “Powerful Conversations Generate Powerful Results,” she discusses how powerful conversations can lead to extraordinary results, how to create dialogue and understand conversation intentions and their impact.
So what are conversations you are avoiding that could create impact and improved results in your organization? What fears do you have that need to be addressed in order for you to engage in critical conversations necessary in your role as a leader?
What an important article. It is worth downloading and reading the whole thing.
One thing I would like to better understand is how you manage the risk of initiating the difficult conversation. You want to communicate effectively about what you see as the real issue, but if there is a problem you don’t want the recipient to “shoot the messenger.” What are some words, phrases, or strategies for this?
(Example I’ve heard: Give negative feedback sandwiched between a positive intro and a positive close.)
Off with her head!
An image of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland springs to mind as I read this. Dealing with hair trigger bosses and suffering unreasonable consequences for speaking up are real phenomenon in the
government. The question of which is worse – speaking up or not speaking up – is valid. Speaking up about an important issue puts us at risk for embarrassment, admonishment or worse. We’ve seen or heard about it happening to our colleagues. We may have had it happen to ourselves in the past.
To deal with it effectively, laying a foundation helps a great deal. Few people are successful walking in to a boss’s office as an unknown quantity and opening up a sensitive conversation. If, on the other hand, I position myself well, build up some credibility, and introduce the subject in a value-added context, then I can usually participate in a conversation that goes in all kind of positive directions.
Positioning ourselves well comes down to track record and attitude. I’ve had the best results when I’m already known for something and have a good reputation. If we don’t have a reputation with the person we’re talking with, it’s helpful realize that the person we’re talking with is within their rights to (and probably will) challenge us. My advice is to try to be prepared and relaxed. This is a normal feature of human dynamics – the issue is what’s important.
Approaching a problem from a value added context often means being careful to listen to the person we’re communicating with so that we understand their position and pain. If we understand the boss’s pain, we may be able to craft a discussion in the context of relieving or avoiding that pain. We earn instant credibility if we can communicate, directly or indirectly, that we’ve have taken the time to understand the issues and our audience.
Finally, despite our best efforts, sometimes it doesn’t work. If that happens, accept it as a lesson learned and move forward. Rarely are things as bad as we can imagine them to be.
Danielle – I’m thinking that asking questions is helpful. Rather than being direct, sometimes a person can probe a bit to understand the motives behind someone’s attachment to a particular stance (seek first to understand). Then respond in a way that respects the other’s values and strives to present an alternative that aligns with them. The key is not to use leading questions that are an obvious attempt to manipulate toward your own view
Andrew, I agree, your questions should not be “an obvious attemt to manipulate towards you own view”. Would you say, this attempt should be well hidden, then, or should it not be an attemt to manipulate at all?
Great comments and dialogue! If your potential conversation could be dangerous, you might wish to be indirect as Andy suggests and even take an opening approach of saying “this is what I’m hearing on the street and i would like to hear whether you think it has merit or to just ignore it.” if you think the article I referenced would be good to share with the boss, you could anonymously drop off a copy in their inbox and hope they read it.
When you get right down to it, the problem is that so many people are nuts. Off their rocker irrational. And if you get in the middle of their nuttiness there isn’t much you can do to make them think rationally. No?
LOL! That’s funny, Dannielle! I agree that there are a fair number of nutters out there, and you’re right – sometimes there isn’t much you can do (for a number of reasons). However, when I’m not feeling comfortable enough to have a challenging conversation, unless or until I’m confident in a nutter diagnosis, I’m inclined to think we don’t know one another well enough and we have different perspectives. My first attempt is to try to build trust and understanding.
Thanks for this post. I think we have all encountered a supervisor in the past who might fit the “Queen of Hearts” description. In such cases, I always tried to frame my concerns as those that didn’t simply affect me, but affected organizational operations as a whole. For example: “I am struggling with X project, and I am worried about how it might affect my colleagues, as well as my own performance. Do you have any suggestions?” I would love to hear from managers if this is actually an appropriate way to handle a challenge.
I think it is important to address these types of serious conversations – if they propel positive advancements and are not just a conduit for complaining. I was recently in a position where I felt pressured to perform in an area in which I was not comfortable and in which I was not hired to perform. I was torn between being a team player – and speaking up for my rights and desires to perform in my initial job description. I approached the issue by explaining to my supervisor the areas in which I feel I excel and can contribute most to the company (which were the areas in which I thought I was initially hired to perform!). I was willing to pitch in and help out in other areas – but I want to be able to concentrate on my strengths and perform the job functions I most enjoy and most excel at.
Although I was pleased at how open and direct I was, I still had lingering apprehensions that my boss considered me to be a stick in the mud and not a team player.
There is no one definitive answer but here are some factors I try to keep in mind. Not in priority order.
1) Power – are you the subordinate? (As you said, in this scenario you were.) Bosses intensely dislike hearing the word “no.” They generally value “team players,” “problem solvers,” people who will jump right in and take the assignment even if they don’t know what they’re doing. As long as their heart is in the right place. Part of giving you an assignment you can’t handle is to see what you do under pressure.
2) Organizational culture – does the organization expect you to be a straight shooter or are you supposed to diplomatically say “yes” to everything and then figure it out later? Do they expect you to grow by taking “stretch” assignments and learning as you fall down? Then you may have had a mis-impression about your true job scope. I believe I once found the description for my current job in my files, and then I promptly lost it and forgot about it, because the scope is always changing. I like that. Not everybody does!
3) Your personality – are you like a vaccuum who can inhale a lot of toxic dust and then empty out the dustbin at home? Or will you carry it around like black smoke all day unless you express yourself right then and there? If your personality style is to be more direct and upfront then it is probably unhealthy for you to be something you are not – and that can hurt you later on.
4) Resources – are you being asked to do something you absolutely cannot do, or that you can do with some training and support? Maybe the thing to do is to say, “If you give me XYZ training, staff, etc. I can do a great job with this.”
5) Personal ethics – It sounds like you felt it was unjust to be hired for A then asked to do B. In my mind, for a full-time employee this is normal since nobody can predict what the financial needs of the organization will be and you sort of have to be flexible. I’m all for standing up for yourself but I would need to know more about where the injustice was.
6) Generational communication style – I will be very broad brush about this and share my impression that:
* Newer recruits to the workforce (Gen Y) tend to be more focused on needing to know exactly what to do in order to succeed. (Gen Z, younger than Gen Y, is not like this – they care a lot less about the rules and tend to make them up as they go along.) Also, Gen Y (this may not be you) tends to feel more entitled to rewards and advancement than us Gen Xers and generally to being treated properly on the job.
* Versus my generation (Gen X) tend to be more focused on getting things done – result matters more than process and they work more autonomously.
* Versus Baby Boomers like to solicit input but in the end want to have the final say.
* And Matures just expect you to listen.
7) Last and most important and the issue I still don’t have a good answer on is – is the person you’re talking to rational, or nuts? I am really not kidding about this: If they are rational you can have an honest conversation. If they are irrational, neurotic, psychotic, deluded, paranoid, sadistic, narcissistic, etc. then they are carrying around a personality disorder all the time. So your presence in the room gives them a chance to let off steam in your direction – and they don’t even see you. Fortunately I don’t deal with people like this 99% of the time, but the other 1% of the time, my best advice is to run in the other direction!
Bottom line: If you want to earn a living you sometimes have to go outside your comfort zone. The one who has the pocketbook generally makes the rules. But you also have to be true to yourself because otherwise you’ll be miserable anyway. And there is always another job.
Excellent comments, Dannielle. Wish I could “Awesome” comments on posts like this.
Congrats Michelle! You were proactive. You can’t control what others will think. I certainly would have welcomed your approach. I’m wondering how it’s worked out now that you took the action you did.
Dorothy, what you did sounds like a good way to handle it. Do you have an example of how this approach has worked for you?
Love all the dialogue this post has generated! Thanks, Lee!
In my work as the Program Manager, I see many instances when a Manager’s reluctance to have a difficult conversation results in confusion, misbehavior, morale busting incidents and chaos. There are many good resources for tips on having a difficult conversation, the most common references being “Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high,” by Ketty Patterson and others and their follow-up “Cruicial Confrontations.” I also think the work Marshal Rosenberg has done in “Non-Violent Communication” to be useful. Finally, Ken Cloke offered a list of contextual elements in Communication that I believe is worth sharing:
1. Meaning: In the absence of context, what is the meaning of what is being communicated?
2. Intention: What effect in the listener was intended by the speaker?
3. Awareness: What level of awareness of the communication is present in the listener?
4. Understanding: How much of what is being communicated does the listener understand?
5. Acceptance: Which parts of the communication are acceptable to the listener and which are not?
6. Process: How was the message communicated? What was the tone? What was the energy level?
7. Context: What is the structure or system within which the communication is made?
8. Relationship: What is the relationship between the speaker and the listener? What is their history? What do they expect in the future?
As mediators, we are asking ourselves these questions frequently as we help people get through conflict. In the workplace, I think these questions are useful to ask in reference to having difficult conversations about sensitive issues.
Danielle thanks for your great comments which more richness to our conversation.
Michelle congratulations on being open and direct with your boss. You might want to follow-up and get some feedback on how the conversation went from your boss’ perspective.
Dorothy I like the way you delicately worded your response. I think it was genuine and non-confrontational. ‘d like to recommend a book that might provide more tools in how to hold these powerful conversations; it is called “Crucial Conversations,” by Patterson, Grenny, et. al.
Great dialogue. How ironic that an article about powerful conversations is itself a powerful conversation. Great timing too, as I seem to be having an uncomfortable\y increasing frequency of these dialogues with no positive results. Danielle has some great ideas, but there are some facets that invite more depth.
For example, “stretch assignments” to someone whose performance standards are negatively written (met level = no substantive errors) is a setup for the one person in the organization who agrees to try it out and help the stressed out manager who is unable to hire a contractor or provide adequate and focused training and other resources.
Seeing what you can do under pressure is also a dumping action by the manager who is also under pressure and has no solution. Which of us is paid to deal with that pressure rationally? And which of us is ultimately more capable of handling the issues faced by the organization and ironically not getting paid for it?
Gen X/Y/Boomer generalities only serve to fuel EEO actions. If the stretch assignment is truly a development tool to groom a potential leader then (a) it should be presented as such and (b) assigned based on individual competencies rather than discriminatory criteria. For example, I frequently see references in this board to better adapability to social media by younger users, yet we seldom consider who developed the internet from scratch or the average age of our senior technocrats. In another post today you’ll find concern about the retirement exodus and its organizational impact to technical competency. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways.
The delicacy with which difficult conversations are approached side-steps the issue of its inherent difficulty from the outset. Lets call it what it is in the first sentence and forge ahead together while sharing the load for potential failure. Special emphasis on together.
And that’s what my rambling post is about – sharing the load. The difficult conversation is held because the manager is stuck. Admit it. Seek advice. Groom someone on the team. Share your fears. And finally, bond.
Future difficulties won’t be so hard.
Hi everyone. Just to clarify, I am suggesting that effective conversations begin with listening to the other person, understanding their frame of reference etc., sizing up your risk, and making a calculated decision. Awarenes is not stereotyping unles you make it so. Just the opposite, lack of awareness can cause you to offend.
Example: I cannot tell you how many times women have told me they were offended that they shopped in a store with an Orthodox owner, male, who would not give them coin change vut rather put it on the counter. This is intended to respect the laws of modesty, not to disrespect the customer. If you understand that it is a totally different situation than if you make one culfure play by another’s rules.
Separately I highly recommend the book Who Really Matters by Art Kleiner. My blog the other day is all about it. Much of the content relates to this discussion about how to be effective in a challenging conversation. A must-read available from Amazon for a penny.
Putting change on the counter instead of in a woman’s hand… wow. I’m adding that one to my book of wonders. 🙂
Alexander – Sorry I’m not seeing your response until now. I was thinking that the questions would be an honest quest for the truth without a hidden agenda and not as an attempt to manipulate. “What if” questions would be helpful in trying to see if your position / suggestion would be accepted. Gather as much information as possible and present a reasoned case.
I subscribe to several Forbes’ feeds and this one on “Top 10 Steps You Must Take to Use Anger Effectively” could be instructive for readers of this blog post and discussion:
I think I’m going to open up a new thread on the topic of anger…stay tuned.