Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When leadership means accepting the need for unpleasant conversations

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on January 30, 2012

Leadership is often and even usually spoken of in terms of the positive, and in terms of creating and conveying strategy and vision. Leaders organize others and bring them together in fulfilling goals that no single individual could achieve alone. But not all tasks and responsibilities are pleasant, and some can be difficult – and I do not just mean technically challenging when I write that. Leaders have to take responsibility for and ownership of difficult and unpleasant decisions and conversations too.

That can mean telling a member of your team that a project or program that they feel strongly about cannot be done, or if started, completed. That can mean sitting down with an employee to give them a negative performance review or a reprimand. That can mean letting someone go as part of a downsizing. It can mean firing an employee for cause. Leadership, and at whatever level on the table of organization, means following through on the positive and uplifting sides of the job in creating and sustaining opportunity. But leadership just as thoroughly and significantly means facing and going through unpleasant conversations too, and on following through on decisions made that come out of them.

Many managers viw the first time a new manager has to fire someone as the defining rite of passage test they go through as a manager and leader, and as the defining test of leadership per se. I do not agree with that and for a variety of reasons, but I do understand the point. Terminating employment of someone you have worked with is perhaps the archetypal unpleasant conversation that a leader can, and with time will have to face.

This posting is not about the specifics of the particular unpleasant conversation faced. That varies and in too many ways for it to make sense to have separate ad hoc approaches for each of the possibilities. Consistency and reliability are important here as measures of fairness. So this posting is about best practices for approaching and holding unpleasant conversations per se, and it is about consistent, fair follow-through for decisions and actions that come from these conversations.

• Understand and face your emotions as you consider the conversation and decisions to come, and then set them aside. Emotional outbursts from you as a manager and leader will not help, and responding with your own emotions in the face of any coming from the people you are meeting with would only cloud and confuse matters and make that conversation much more difficult for all.
• When you meet with people in these conversations listen at least as much as you speak – and even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. You have to end a favorite project that one of your managers has invested a great deal of time and energy and hope into because budget considerations no longer make it possible. You have to fire an employee with cause and for reasons that give you no real alternatives. Tell them what you have to say but listen to them too and even accept the fact that they may have to vent their emotions as well as share in their reasoning.
• Both of these points involve fairness and both allow for a measure of closure, and with the greatest chance possible that everyone will at least with time, realize the best or at least the fairest decision was made.

Timing and setting are very important here.

• Never avoidably berate an employee or colleague in public. If you have to criticize or deliver bad news, do so as a private conversation.
• Give the people you meet with in these conversations time to process what was said and discussed where that makes sense. If that means meeting with them on a Friday, do that if it is possible and feasible to do so. Pick you place and time for these conversations with care.
• But balance this with an equally compelling need to act promptly so as to not leave others hanging in wait of your decision.

Be decisive and finish with a clear message on the table.

• If that means letting an employee go by downsizing or firing, do that.
• If it means ending a project do that and end it cleanly, enabling its project manager and any project outcome stakeholders opportunity to close off loose ends.

I will finish this posting with a few additional thoughts.

• Learn from this so you can limit the need for avoidably having to repeat the same unpleasant conversation. If that means more thoroughly and effectively planning and prioritizing what projects you work on, or leading more strategically do that. If it means hiring with more care do that. The need for unpleasant conversations can serve as impetus to learn and to develop better best practices for moving forward.
• But accept that the truly unexpected can arise too, and can bring you to make force decisions that could not be anticipated or planned for but that you still have to make.
• And when you have to hold an unpleasant conversation, take on this responsibility yourself and do it. Be the bearer of good news when that is appropriate but be the bearer of bad news when that is necessary too.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 2 and see also Business Strategy and Operations. I have also included this in HR and Personnel and you can find related postings there too.

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