it takes a village
June 25, 2020

It takes a village to help you master difficult conversations as a leader

By Paul Laughlin

Perhaps it takes a lifetime to master having difficult conversations as a leader, I thought it might at least take a village.

OK, I don’t have a physical village in mind, rather the global village of leaders working in the field of data, analytics, data science & customer insight. What have today’s leaders in this field learnt about approaching difficult conversations at work?

Having already recommended a book and shared the wisdom of guest bloggers Kevin Watson, Tony Boobier & William Buist – I pondered what else would help you. That’s when I turned to those leaders I know who have proven experience.

They’re too busy to write whole guest blog posts. But, I think you’ll agree that their briefer wisdom, shared below, is well worth reading. Lot’s of reminders to what is practical wisdom or best practice in these situations.

So, let’s hear from our village (I hesitate to say village elders, but let’s say experienced)…

Tips from today’s data leaders

(1) Martin Squires (Director of Advanced Analytics for Pets at Home)

Challenging conversations is an interesting subject. My first thought is that it’s best if they are avoided, rather than managed. That sounds like wishful thinking but really is something you can work on.

If I think about the most challenging conversations I’ve had, that have gone badly, it’s rarely been about the content of the conversation and how controversial or difficult that has been. There’s always exceptions and some stuff is just too sore a subject to avoid being hard, but usually, it’s something more personal. The ones that are hard are when you start from having no common ground and ‘go in cold‘.

His village says – focus on the relationship first

For me making challenging conversations less challenging is about having non-challenging conversations more often.

If you put the hard yards in networking with your key stakeholders first. Understanding their priorities and what really makes them tick. Preferably in work and out (ENTPs include out, maybe leave the ISTJs alone on that bit!) Then you are in a far better place to have a difficult conversation when you need to have one.

Basically telling someone who trusts you and is maybe your friend bad news is never easy. But, it’s a damn sight easier than doing it with a total stranger who doesn’t know you or feel you are on the same side.

(2) Harry Wilkes (Head of Customer Analytics for RELX)

I read a good book a few years ago on this that really helped me – it was called Thanks for the feedback” by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen. It focuses on getting better at receiving feedback, rather than worrying about how to give it.

Thinking about probably one of the more difficult work-related conversations – giving negative performance feedback at the end of the year. Firstly, that feedback should just be confirmation of what a colleague is expecting, based on earlier interactions. So, it should not be that tough. Difficult conversations often arise because communication has not been frequent or high enough quality in the past. Talk more!

Assuming a “difficult” conversation cannot be avoided though (and this applies to both personal and professional conversations), don’t try and give two types of feedback at once. If there is a difficult performance rating to be talked about split the conversation into two.

His village says – give one message at a time

Deliver the evaluation feedback first and then allow a period of reflection: “Your performance rating is going to be below expectation. Here is the performance document for you to review. Think about it and then we can talk tomorrow about what needs to change for the next period”.

When you next get together, you can focus on the coaching feedback. Trying to do both at once will be doomed to failure. The negative evaluation will mean your colleague cannot hear your coaching until the emotion is less raw, so the conversation is unlikely to be two-way.

Your relationship is so important as well. Ask yourself “does the relationship I have with this person give me the right to have this conversation?” If not, you either need to find someone who does or do the work. There might be a few steps of relationship building needed before you can have the conversation you want to have.

(3) Rob Kellaway (Head of DataOps for Legal & General)

As someone who has seemed to walked into a worryingly high number of difficult conversations, both inside and outside work, I have often reflected on the subject.

My first thought is, am I doing something fundamentally wrong to put me in these conversations in the first place? Am I a magnet for trouble? I am poor at reading the situation or do people just generally dislike me?!

Of course, it’s pretty standard human behaviour to consider that you are the fulcrum of the world’s focus and are at personal fault or at risk. The truth is, these are just thoughts that enter your mind. Nowadays, I treat these thoughts for what they are worth, just thoughts, and move on. They can get in the way, so I note them, thank them for the input and then leave them behind.

His village says – embrace the discomfort

What we can’t brush off so easily is that difficult conversations are a part of life, and in fact may be something we could embrace a bit more as an opportunity to learn and a chance to experiment. I realise that this might be “risky talk” and I probably wouldn’t want to conduct a highly experimental approach to my next performance assessment. But, I’ve certainly improved my ability to respond to difficult situations with a few simple questions:

  • What state of mind is the person (or people) I am talking with likely to be in and what outcome are they looking for? Note: Put in some pre-thinking about the humans. 
  • “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em what you told ’em’” OK, may not be an approach high up on the EQ scale. But, as a guide, don’t beat around the bush too much.
  • People tend to remember how you made them feel, rather than what you said. Note: rehearsing your lines to be word perfect for 3 hours on the train prior, may not guarantee your result.
  • ”All plans change on the first contact with the enemy” Andy McNab, SAS. Get ready for changing your approach, and crucially, take care on how you react.

As an mentor once told me, “It would be easy if it wasn’t for the humans!”…. How true.

What can your village teach you?

Many thanks to Martin, Harry & Rob for sharing their tips. Lots of common sense and proven good advice there for us all.

How are you doing at mastering having more challenging conversations this month? Does one of the tips above strike you as something you could put into practice? If so, plan where & when you’ll do that.

Otherwise, what about thinking of your business network (colleagues, contacts, mentors, ex-colleagues) like your personal village? How could their voices help raise you as a leader? Who could you share with, about your challenges?