One of the hard pieces of work in leadership is being the one who often has to have difficult conversations with individual team members. While difficult, when done effectively it can be a defining mark of a strong leader. Difficult conversations can cover a variety of topics. It may be as “easy” as coaching a good team member up from a project that didn’t go as well as normal, to a tough situation that may involve ending someone’s employment with you. Though each situation requires its own particular touches, there are three major mental shifts that can help both you and the team member get through it more effectively.

  • You have to see yourself as part of the solution more than the other person as the problem.

You are a critical part of the solution. The first mental change begins with your orientation. How many times have you heard second-hand of a situation where a difficult conversation didn’t go well with someone and resulted in unnecessary hurt? If you have a leadership DNA, then it is likely you wished you could have stepped in to make it better. That’s the initial step to the first mental shift: you have to see yourself as part of the solution more than the other person as the problem. Most leaders have a natural desire to help solve challenges and one must use that to make a mental shift. Approaching it from this way seems like a small orientation change, but what it does is give one a surprising energy toward solving a real challenge vs. the dread a hard conversation can produce.

  • Think in terms of long-term gains, not short-term pains.

Focus on the big picture, not the minutia. Building on the above step of having the needed difficult conversation can feel like a potential setback. In fact, it may represent a real setback. What the leader has to stay focused on whatever is the long-term impact. Whether the conversation is around work that has been or needs to be delayed or if it is around an employee whose progress may need to be under-girded, sometimes smaller goals have to be delayed in order to be in a better position for larger ones. Even if it means work is halted for a period while everything is being re-evaluated, it is better than continuing down a road that would have been going nowhere if you were not willing to have the difficult conversation in the first place.

  • A strong leader will see this as an opportunity to have a life-changing conversation with someone.

You are the advocate, not the executioner. Much of the time the anxiety over a tough conversation comes from the fact most of the time we simply don’t like having to be the bad guy. This is another chance for a mental shift. A strong leader will see this as an opportunity to speak into the life of someone and coach them over having to be the deliverer of bad news. Yes, hard conversations do often involve sharing news one may not want to hear but they can also be among the best conversations a person has ever had. Most of us have had a time in our life when someone had to intervene to get us back on track (or prevent us from doing so) and we can look back and realize how important that was. A strong leader will see this as an opportunity to have a potentially benefiting life-changing conversation with someone and will think through how one can assure this person that they are looking out for their ultimate success.

As we lead with here, these parts aren’t fun but are part of the leadership contract. In the end, we want to make sure we treat everyone with grace as much as we can and help them move to a stronger way of being able to serve on the team. Making these mental shifts can enhance one’s confidence and attitude when having to take on these challenging matters.


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