For many people, one of the worst aspects of being a leader is difficult conversations. Whether you're delivering bad news or telling someone they're fired, the sorts of conversations that are sure to make the other party miserable, are pretty sure to depress you too.
In response, many of us drag our feet. 'I'll tell him tomorrow,' we say to ourselves. Or, 'Now just isn't the right time.' If you're looking for advice on how to overcome this procrastinating and just get on with it, this post isn't for you. Instead, I'd like to inform you that, according to at least one expert, sometimes this foot-dragging isn't irrational. Sometimes you should listen to your instincts and simply NOT confront your colleague or employee.
Wait, what? Why would it ever be a good idea to avoid having a hard but necessary chat? The answer is that while you shouldn't avoid genuinely necessary tough talks, more often than we think, skipping a confrontation isn't cowardice but wisdom.
That's the argument of a recent HBR piece by executive coach Deborah Grayson Riegel. Working with conflict-averse clients she sometimes finds "their avoidance instincts are actually valid. Not every conversation needs to be had immediately, had by them, or had at all," she writes. Chickening out, in other words, can be the best option.
But when? In the post Grayson Riegel offers a checklist of questions to help you determine whether you're simply putting off the inevitable or whether your gut is trying to tell you something about the utility of a tough conversation. If you're dreading a chat with a colleague, it's worth checking out in full, but here, in brief, are three cases when Grayson Riegel says it's OK to simply skip that awkward conversation.
1. The situation will fix itself.
Tough conversations stink for everyone. If they're not strictly necessary then don't have them. And one situation where they can be safely avoided is when the underlying issue, whatever it might be, is resolving itself on its own.
2. You don't have solutions to offer.
Sometimes your impulse stems from a simple desire to vent. It's understandable, but probably destructive. Don't have that tough conversation -- especially one related to poor performance -- unless you have actionable advice to offer.
Grayson Riegel gives the example of one leader she worked with who "wanted to talk to his direct report about being 'less defensive' when he gave her feedback." He didn't have any specific examples of the problem behavior to offer, however, nor did he know exactly how his team could go about fixing the problem. Ultimately he decided to hold off until he could pin down more specifics.
3. It really isn't the right time.
Sometimes this is because it is never going to be the right time with this person. Riegel Grayson gives the example of a client dealing with a genuinely abusive boss. Why subject yourself to an emotional beating when he's already proven he's not open to change? The client skipped the chat and went to HR.
Alternatively, it might genuinely not be the right time because the right time has long since passed. For example, if you have years' worth of pent up grievances, like one of Riegel Grayson's client's with a credit-hogging manager, it's probably better not to dump this entire expired emotional load on the other party. Instead, wait for a fresh example of the behavior and then bring up only the most recent incident.