hard conversations

The Secret Formula to Hard Conversations

by Sep 24, 2019Leadership

The inability to handle conflict can limit your career.

A popular book among business leaders these days is called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. The book talks about the idea that one’s ability to be direct with people and give them hard truths is a core leadership skill. But this involves more than just being a jerk. What sets great leaders apart is that they start from a place of love and compassion. The magic formula is really all about, as Mohandas Gandhi said, hating the sin and not the sinner.

The ability to do this is actually a core managerial strength. If you cannot share the uncomfortable truths coming from a place of love and compassion, you cannot succeed as a manager and leader. It will become your fatal flaw.

Why? There are lots of conversations that impact people in a business from performance to money to assignments and while these things are best for the business they aren’t always best for the individual. As a leader, we always want to do the best for our people and we usually can, but in those times when you can’t you have to face it or you sub-optimize the business and the issues fester. Like old fish, these things don’t get better with time.

I’ve seen examples of this in action countless times. In fact, it’s the single largest impediment to people’s success–especially when their need to be liked overwhelms their commitment to do the right thing for the business. I’d argue there is a spectrum where on one end you have people who are quick to share feedback, but who lack the compassion and empathy necessary to make it effective. On the other end of the spectrum are folks who would literally do anything to avoid conflict, including sticking their fingers in their ears to avoid a difficult conversation.

I was recently working with a CEO who had a president reporting to him who was a huge conflict avoider. Not only did that impact his career, but it came back to haunt the company as well. In this case, the company as a whole was growing and profitable. But as is often the case, different teams inside the business felt pushed to their limits. So they asked the president for more manpower for their teams.

It was the president’s role to watch the overhead count and make sure the company was staffed properly to deliver the product and the profits. In fact, the teams were actually staffed perfectly to handle the opportunities in front of them. The president needed to tell the teams that no, they couldn’t hire more people. But he didn’t do that. His need to be liked and to avoid difficult conversations meant that he just allowed the teams to go ahead and expand their headcount.

Unfortunately, that led the company to become bloated with too many staff members relative to their revenue. The company soon began to lose money–which forced the CEO to lay off more than 35 people.

The president was fortunate not to be one of those fired. But the CEO asked me to work with him and help him improve his ability to deal with radical candor. One of the exercises I gave him was that he needed to say no to someone’s request at least once a day. It could be anything, as long as it was a no. He needed to train himself on the little things before he could move on to bigger issues that might involve really tough conversations. He’s still a work in process, so we’ll see how things work out for him over time.

The Secret? Sharing hard truths from a place of love and compassion

The point is that if you can’t handle objective reality and deal with conflict, you’ll never thrive as a leader. Consider that even Warren Buffet says that feedback is a gift–especially when it comes from a place of wanting to help someone get better. The feedback also has to be real and authentic–you have to really mean what you’re saying. You can’t fake sincerity. Authentic feedback is so valuable because so few people are willing to give it, which is why it’s a gift.

When people ask me if they can give me feedback, I repeat the mantra, “Feedback is a Gift” to put my mind in the right frame of mind. No matter how hard the feedback is, and usually it’s pretty gentle, I say “Thank you”. I say this even if I am hurting from the feedback because I don’t want it to stop – it’s the only way to get better. Loving someone means you care enough to tell them the truth.

That’s why, if you want to succeed as a leader, you need to work on your ability to both deliver and receive the hard truths. Otherwise, you’ll put your career–and the company you work for–at risk of failure.