I have worked with thousands of CEOs over the years in my advisory work and one thing that really stands out to me is how common it is to find leaders who don't know how to handle conflict. And while most of us tend to shy away from fights or anything like that, I'm talking about leaders who actively avoid having the kinds of hard conversations you need to have in building healthy relationships. 

Patrick Lencioni, in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable says it a different way, "Conflict is productive"

That means if you can't handle conflict, you can't lead. The best leaders, on the other hand, see those kinds of tough conversations as opportunities to build a stronger team and a stronger peace.

These situations happen all of the time with all kinds of people--like with business partners, customers and suppliers, and especially with underperforming employees.

What's shocking to me is how often I see examples where leaders know they have an employee who is not performing at a level they need to be, and yet the leaders actively avoids talking to them about--even as they steam about it in private! It becomes the worst kept secret in the office where everyone knows what's happening, but nothing gets done about it.  Body language doesn't lie.

What results is like a festering wound where all this poisonous resentment builds up within the team until it finally explodes in spectacularly unproductive ways--all because the leader couldn't or wouldn't have a tough conversation.

When I run into scenarios like this, and it's not to late to help, I coach CEOs on using the using the following tips to help kick off those tough talks:

1. Become Clinical

Take a lesson from physicians who learn to take a very clinical and fact-based attitude when they're dealing with patients--especially mortally sick ones--where they could easily become very emotional. Your goal should be to talk to someone about what needs to happen to fix a problem without making it personal just like a doctor would in diagnosing an illness. You need to rise above the situation and think like a third-party observer would when dealing with the situation at hand.

2. No Friends At Work

One CEO I have worked with struggled with having hard conversations with his people because he thought of them as his friends. It was only when he adopted a policy of "no friends at work" did he become a better leader. This might seem a little harsh since we all want to have productive and friendly relationships with the people we work with.  Trust me, he hated this approach because he was a genuinely nice guy, but when he became friends, he lost the ability to be clinical and do what he needed for the business.

But your goal as a leader should be to limit the kinds of personal relationships you build at work as a way to avoid those overly emotional ties that become barriers to having difficult conversations. You should draw a distinctive line between the kinds of friends you have at work between the kinds of friends you have over to your house or go on vacation with.  

3. Throw Money At The Problem

If all else fails, and you can't bring yourself to talk through your problems, there is a weapon of last resort: you can use money to make your problem go away. This can happen in a couple of different ways. One example might be that when you decide to terminate an employee or end a partnership, you go out of your way to be generous and give the other person more money than they technically deserve. This can be a way to smooth over the hard feelings that could otherwise have made for a more difficult break up. I've seen this happen many times, though the relationships rarely survive this remedy.

Another example of throwing money at the problem is to hire lawyers to do the hard talking you want to avoid.  Then the other side has no choice to hire their own lawyers. Obviously this can quickly become a very expensive course of action, especially since lawyers might lack the creativity and insight you would have in reaching an agreement.

The lesson then, is that it's far better to learn how to have the hard conversations at work as a way to build a more productive and peaceful team. If you can't do that, you'll end up paying one way or another.  

Published on: May 2, 2018
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