After nearly 25 years working in corporate America (most of them as a leader myself), there's one single competence I'd elevate above all the rest when it comes to leadership. It has a wildly disproportionate impact on the organization's ability to fulfill its mission, return value to shareholders, engage talent, and build a winning culture.

Fundamentally, leaders at every level can be transition figures in the lives (professionally and personally) of every associate when they rise to the challenge of talking straight. That means tackling issues that other leaders have avoided, through neglect or, candidly, cowardice.

These issues can range from common challenges like individual performance, low self-awareness, collaboration, and taking responsibility for their actions--to the seemingly absurd, like someone's hygiene or personal issues that are impairing their focus.

You must learn to talk straight with your colleagues, specifically your direct reports, about their blind spots. When done consistently, you can develop a brand of being a respectful and courageous leader willing to tackle issues that, until now, have been neglected.

Here are six tips to rise to the challenge of discussing the undiscussable:

1. Check your paradigm.

Be willing to challenge your perception of the person you're conducting the high-courage conversation with. Are you open to modifying your view of them based on new information? Are you their champion, supporter, or a detractor? Can this person win your support and confidence, or do they have a metaphorical target on their back? How do you feel about them personally? Could that change?

2. Differentiate between your emotions and facts.

Don't confuse perceptions (feelings) with actual experiences (facts). The line is fine, but when you are discussing high-stakes issues, be specific and deliberate, so your colleague understands exactly when and how they demonstrated the behaviors in question. Stay aware of your tendency to rely on emotions, so you can minimize confusion or defensiveness.

3. Role-play with a trusted colleague.

Prior to holding the conversation, refine your style with a confidant, ideally at the executive or human-resource level. This will provide invaluable insights on your own skills in delivering feedback. Rarely, do we get it right out of the gate. 

Practice may not make perfect, but it absolutely will improve your performance.

4. Declare your intent.

When you open the conversation, consider stating something like, "I've called you in today to discuss some specific areas where I think you can improve on your performance/contribution/role/etc. I want you to know I have your best interests in mind as I share some thoughts with you. I may not say them as well as I'd like, so please forgive me if I stumble or have to restate anything."

When the other person knows that your intent is to truly help and support them, they can focus on receiving the feedback and will likely be less defensive.

5. Respect the whole person.

Leaders can deliver difficult, even embarrassing information to a team member, while still allowing them to maintain their self-esteem. Balance your courage with an equal dose of consideration. How would you like to be treated if you were on the receiving end?

Be careful not to overcompensate either way--too much courage can decimate someone; too much consideration can lure you into avoiding the facts and confronting the issues.

6. Commit to continuing.

You won't say everything you wanted to. You will regret a few parts. You'll want a do-over. If the conversation didn't happen the way you hoped it would, don't pull back on your commitment to hold difficult discussions in the future. Continue to offer truly priceless feedback to others on how they can improve their own brands, build their skills, and someday become the leader coaching others.

As I look back on my leadership career, I believe my legacy will be that one leader who took the risks and exercised the vulnerability to continually hold high-courage conversations about sensitive issues, all with the intent of helping others improve. Inevitably when a former colleague connects with me--in an airport, on social media, or otherwise--the consistent (and sometimes only) compliment they give me goes like this: "Scott, you were the one leader in my career that had the courage to tell me..."

Not a bad legacy.

Published on: Jul 30, 2019
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