What’s the point of having difficult conversations?

by | Aug 21, 2019

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In my corporate days, I worked with a HR colleague who I respect immensely. She is a great teacher, simply by her approach to her life and her work.

I remember her sharing a perspective with me after a particularly demanding day facilitating a leadership team through productive conflict.

We were working to enable tough discussions, helping the team to surface and talk about their culture and dynamic and how that was preventing them from resolving a dire revenue challenge, which was steadily amounting to millions.

Her insight was profound and captured simply as ‘Sometimes our greatest opportunity for growth waits for us in the things we avoid the most’.

The leadership team we were working with had come into the session avoiding what was perceived as conflict, afraid to engage in honest, open discussions about the ideas needed to resolve the growing revenue challenge, playing out daily.

Instead, they were focusing on criticising each other personally, being passive aggressive, using silence or simply changing the topic. A myriad of dysfunctional behaviour that needed to be acknowledged and owned.

With that in mind, we both agreed to work on ensuring that as much of the dysfunction was surfaced and then reflected back to them as a team.

Having facilitated that session, we then asked the team what they had noticed about how they had been behaving, what the impact was on them and then the business.

We held that space, and slowly they started to acknowledge they were avoiding the critical issues, engaging in petty conflict focused on ego rather than working together to resolve the revenue challenges.

We shared a study conducted by Zenger/Folkman which found that 74% of employees who received negative feedback already knew there was a problem.

Secondly, it all also evidenced that employees aren’t necessarily unaware of what needs improving. Notably, they simply were not sure how to improve or were just not aware of their impact on the rest of the team.

In fact, previous research by Zenger/Folkman evidenced that most employees actually want constructive feedback. Getting suggestions for improvement and being alerted to mistakes did more to raise their performance than positive feedback and praise.

When asked to name something that could help advance their careers, 72% thought their performance would improve with more frequent and authentic feedback, even if that meant having to receive negative feedback along the way.

But how it was delivered is what really made the difference. Of those surveyed, 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

With the team now acknowledging the issues, we continued through the afternoon introducing feedback and ensuring that it was delivered appropriately for the team.

Using the revenue challenge as the context, the team was encouraged to openly offer feedback to each other on what needed to change. We worked to minimise coaching questions and unrelated discussion instead ensuring that the specific feedback was delivered.

It was vital with this team that the feedback was heard clearly, and that the standard of performance was re-established and not misinterpreted through using coaching questions.

Coaching was incredibly beneficial, but it was used only after the constructive feedback had been delivered and not as a means of introducing the constructive feedback.

We used a pragmatic yet effective five-step feedback model which provided clear evidence first, followed by the impact and subsequent consequences. Discussion then followed to identify ownership of the required standard of performance for both individuals and the team.

As the team learnt to provide timely and factual feedback to each other, we noticed how their behaviours shifted from being dysfunctional. With time, they engaged regularly and effectively in difficult and demanding discussions. They kept the business issues front and centre and worked hard to really listen to each other.

Not all went to plan as is to be expected. But the productivity and effectiveness improved significantly. They built trust, using vulnerability-based techniques which in turn led to accountability, ownership and a stream of creative ideas that drove innovative solutions.

The results started to shift. Targets were achieved and the revenue started to improve leading to a turnaround within 12 months, amounting to millions. All of this in an incredibly diverse and highly competitive market.

So, what is the point of giving constructive verbal feedback?

The opportunities for each of us far outweigh the risks we may perceive.

Sometimes your greatest opportunity for growth waits for you in the things you may be avoiding.

If you are interested in talking to us about how we can help you enable the performance of your team through change, feel free to contact us. We would enjoy talking to you.