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Having Tough Conversations Makes All the Difference

Updated on May 6, 2017

Authentic communications are truthful in a way that creates results and in doing so, strengthens relationships. Many technical leaders believe that simply speaking the truth is adequate because the truth is not malicious or petty.

But effective leaders know that when we communicate, we're communicating with other humans and therefore we must consider their interpretation when making them. The catch is that as a leader we have to have a lot of tough conversations, say what needs to be said and even point out poor performance or judgement when necessary.

The trick to authentic communications is giving honest feedback about performance, disagreeing with ideas that seem ill conceived, identifying words and actions that don't match, and persuading colleagues to face potentially serious problems without damaging the relationship. After all, unless you're Jerry McGuire, you've got to work with these people again tomorrow.

Authentic communications means finding the right time and place to have these crucial conversations and doing so constructively. Calling out performance or questioning judgement just because it is different than your own has no place in a professional setting unless the issue conflicts with the team's mission, vision or values as agreed to by the team.

Communications that enable better performance and strengthen relationships provide facts to support their point of view, and suggestions on how to move forward together. These conversations are also a dialog that encourages feedback on how to best correct course regardless of how we got off track.

Having honest conversation within an organization also means saying what needs to be said or challenging the group-think mindset. Complacent organizations tell themselves "convenient lies" to maintain the status quo, but neglect the conversations that move a good organization forward towards being great.

Some examples of the "convenient lies" teams tell are:

  • We are working together effectively, we don't need to examine or teamwork
  • We respond quickly to any threats the market sends our way
  • Our customers are happy and they love us
  • We are the obvious choice for this client, this deal is ours to lose
  • Our competitive advantage is solid and sustainable
  • The entire organization understands and supports our new strategy
  • This is just a short-term market slump, we'll pull through like always
  • We'll succeed if we just keep doing what we're doing
  • My people know what I expect of them, they don't need me to tell them
  • This will be the only round of layoffs
  • Our people are our most precious asset and we treat them as such

Think for a moment about all the things you and your team aren't saying that need to be said. Then think of why it needs to be said and how finally saying it will enable you to be more effective. If raising your concern will not positively effect the execution of your mission, maybe it doesn't need to be said. Another test I use is that if I can't think of at least one potential solution to the problem then I may just be biased about an issue.

Below are a list of questions to ask yourself in order to gauge your authenticity.

  1. What examples can you give of constructive feedback that you want to give to a colleague, but have not given? Why not?
  2. What conflicts are you avoiding even though you have something to contribute to the issue?
  3. what examples can you give of a direction your organization is taking that might be wrong?
  4. Which of your professional relationships are weak because you have not been open and honest about the way you regard the other person?
  5. What "convenient lies" does your organization pretend to believe?
  6. What other examples of inauthentic communications have these questions reminded you of?

There are literally tens of thousands of books written on professional and our leadership communication, but in my reading very few (if any) discuss what's not being said. Authentic communication is about saying what needs to be said in a constructive way. Remember that when someone says they don't like the emperor's (or CEO's) new clothes.

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