People screw up at work. We are, after all, human. But leaders only compound the problem when they fail to act on it. Pretending that inappropriate conduct doesn't exist--or hoping the bad actor will see the light, self-correct, and switch to a better path--isn't just poor management. It's foolish. 

Good leaders do the hard stuff. They understand that problems don't solve themselves and that issues around character, ethics, competence, and relationships do not go away. They snowball and get worse. They destroy morale. They batter credibility. And they tear down confidence in the boss.

Welcome to leadership. Sometimes it just isn't fun. But doing tough things well is part of the deal.

Here are five things for leaders to consider before launching high-courage conversations around thorny workplace problems:

  • Be clear and transparent. Be upfront and get to the point. You can say, "I've called you in today because I need to have a courageous conversation with you. My intent is not to embarrass you, diminish you, or humiliate you. Rather, my intent is to understand the facts and to move toward a resolution. I need you to explain exactly what happened. I'm going to remind you how important it is for you to be very clear and to make sure that everything you say is accurate."
  • Optics matter. If this is a serious situation, the conversation should happen in a serious place--not tacked onto the end of a meeting or in the parking lot at the end of a workday. The location brings home and reinforces the gravity of the situation. There's a reason why U.S. presidents discuss some topics on an airport tarmac, and others at the Oval Office or Rose Garden. Leaders have the power to set the tone. Take advantage of it.
  • Separate facts from emotion. Your relationships may cloud your ability to see the situation objectively. You start thinking about the person's family, or whether their spouse is going to be humiliated, or how your decision will affect that employee's ability to pay the bills. Next thing you know, you're rationalizing away all the things you don't want to happen. Remember that the employee's actions led to this conversation. It's fine to consider personal circumstances, but remember this is a professional situation. You must separate the difficulty of the decision from what is the right decision.
  • Practice with a trusted advisor. To gain confidence and improve performance, you might role-play the difficult conversation with a confidant. It might be with your CFO, a board member, an investor, or maybe your spouse. But sensitive conversations improve with repetition. Even the most seasoned leaders need to work on their inflection, tone, and word choice.
  • Pull the trigger. Once the facts are gathered, make your decision. Too many leaders delay the inevitable. The rest of the company is watching. What message are you sending with your delay? Rare is the manager who believed they fired someone too soon. In hindsight, almost everyone regrets taking too long. 

An organization will always have cultural and performance issues. The way leadership addresses those issues will make a big difference in the culture and your reputation as the boss.