Managing for Success: It Takes Courage

When was the last time you chose to raise a tricky topic by email rather than face to face? Just now? Yesterday? We’ve all been there… 

The reality is that we just don’t talk like we used to anymore. And this is symptomatic of wider workplace and societal trends away from direct verbal contact.

While there may be time and efficiency savings for a business, there’s a negative impact, too. Moving away from rich, candid discussions with our direct reports could be more damaging than we realise.

The modern manager

Managers today don’t get an easy ride. How many times have you wondered, “Am I a coach now? A counsellor? An agony aunt?” Managers have more responsibility than ever, as HR responsibilities spill over into the boardroom.

‘Having courageous conversations’ shouldn’t be pitched as just another item to add to managers’ already overflowing in-trays. Rather, the ability to initiate (and successfully execute) courageous conversations should make managers’ lives easier, and become part of the day to day.

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Where are courageous conversations needed?

Not an exhaustive list, but a flavour of potential opportunities for a courageous conversation to make a difference:

  1. Addressingpoor performance – rather than hiding behind an appraisal, performance scorecard or decisions made by a committee elsewhere, managers should be more proactive in speaking about a declining level of performance, before it becomes a bigger issue.
  2. Correcting undesirable behaviour – there’s probably a judgement call here about whether this is an ‘HR issue’, but for minor misdemeanours, this could be manager territory. Such an intervention could nip the behaviour in the bud before it becomes a more serious issue.
  3. Discussing pay reviews – another notoriously prickly topic for managers to contend with, but it needn’t be. Be open and honest. If there’s a reason an employee isn’t receiving the pay increase they’d hoped for, explain the reasons and what they should focus on going forward to change this.

Fear of feedback

We avoid difficult conversations as we expect they’ll be uncomfortable. We know that they could lead to an emotional response, clouding what people actually hear and making our jobs even trickier. This issue is further convoluted when we’re communicating in a foreign language. In the increasingly globalised workplace, it is not uncommon for a manager or their employee to be speaking in a language which is not their mother tongue. Here, there is an even greater chance for misinterpretations or worries of being misunderstood, making the conversation uncomfortable at times.

It’s far easier to bury our head in the sand; ignore issues and avoid taking action. Guess what though? Nothing changes. I call this the “Ostrich effect”. Failing to act in these situations may mean you’re holding back your reports from achieving their full potential.

The scenarios outlined above are part of organisational life. They’re not going anywhere. Managers must therefore be better prepared (and supported) for such scenarios. This will ensure they handle them with confidence and achieve positive results. The more routine these conversations become, the more the behaviour and communication becomes embedded in the business, and the less daunting they’ll seem.

Technology: help or hindrance?

Organisations spend up to hundreds of thousands of pounds each year on development programmes such as 360 degree feedback. Such programmes are undoubtedly of value to participants as they’re given a wealth of rich feedback to learn from. Ultimately though, it’s what is done with these tools which determines just how valuable they are for the individual and for their company.

The point is that online appraisals, 360 degree feedback and other HR tools shouldn’t replace a manager-employee conversation, they should better enable them. Such conversations can be incredibly powerful in creating positive behavioural change, so it’s sad that many of us are avoiding having them.

Advice on having a courageous conversation

The first thing to say is: don’t overcomplicate things. A simple approach will serve you best:

  • Have a clear purpose – be clear about the issues you’re raising before you speak with the person concerned and state your intentions up-front to avoid any ambiguity. If either of you is not speaking in your native language, choose your words wisely and don’t leave room for misinterpretations. You could also double-check with the other person whether anything requires repetition or further explanation. We tend to assume the unknown is an “enemy” and to adopt a defensive or aggressive mind-set, which can derail a conversation before it has started. The way you frame this conversation before it begins is vital to its ability to effect change.
  • Stick to the facts – everyone has an opinion and they may well differ so they’re largely irrelevant here. Discuss your perceptions, and ask your report about theirs.
  • Investigate intentions – Unfortunately we rarely explore intention in relation to our behaviour, and therefore don’t get to the crux of the matter. Whatever the intention, this is the driver. Find out what they are trying to achieve; what is the end goal?
  • Look forward, not back – don’t dwell on past mistakes. Outline the behaviour that you would like to see – discuss your own examples, tell your own story, and coach alternative behaviours. Just having an awareness of current behaviour won’t lead to change. The onus is on you to provoke aSHIFT in thinking to generate positive, more beneficial alternatives.
  • Agree actions – what should change as a result of the points raised (and by when)? Make a concrete plan to support favourable behaviour and provide appropriate levels of support.

What’s the outcome of more courageous communication?

[clickandtweet handle=”” hashtag=”” related=”” layout=”” position=””]Having managers who are willing (and able) to initiate courageous conversations offers companies a clear competitive advantage.[/clickandtweet]

The ability to challenge an individual’s thinking and then to support them in effecting change should be in every manager’s toolkit.

Supporting managers to do this consistently will benefit the individual, their team and the organisation. This is because managers will be able to better harness individuals’ ability, handle employee concerns or issues and, ultimately, deliver a higher level of performance.

The key is to keep communication constructive, holistic and developmental in nature. Managers doing this well could unleash more potential in their people than they realise.

About the Author:

Deborah Cobb-Clark is Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney. She is Director of the Program in Gender and Families at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany; a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course; and an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.