A few weeks back I was thinking about how to develop leadership skills in our organization. I was listing down the skills that we should train for and I had an epiphany!! I realized that one of the most underrated leadership skills is the willingness to have uncomfortable conversations. It sounds trivial but this skill is a lot more uncommon than you think. I don’t mean conversations where a leader is letting people go or when they must inform their team about drastic cost cuts. The inevitability of these events means that all leaders do have those conversations, albeit reluctantly. Here I mean conversations like giving tough feedback to your team members, explaining a low pay hike to an underperforming employee, confronting other leaders, resolving inter-personal conflicts in their teams and so on. I also get why leaders instinctively avoid these conversations – after all, the desire to be liked is universal. And at the end of these conversations, the leader is going to be disliked by someone. Also, the impact of not having uncomfortable conversations is not immediately apparent which makes them a lot easier to avoid. Unfortunately, the long-term impact can be devastating to the organization – and lack of this understanding is what makes this skill underrated.
The most egregious examples I have observed are during performance appraisals and pay hikes. I have seen so many examples where leaders award, say, 9% pay hike to someone who scores an 8.5 rating and award 7% to someone who scores a 6.0. The fact that a 6.0 score is not even on the same planet as an 8.5 score is completely disregarded. But it’s much easier to explain a 2% difference to an underperformer than a 5% difference (which is what the differential should be). There could be other explanations like lack of well-defined KPIs, etc. but very often, it’s simply a desire to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Think about the long term impact – not only is the leader condoning a lower level of performance, but they are also penalizing higher performance.
I have observed similar instances where this ‘head in the sand’ strategy led to bad outcomes. Situations where a leader allowed conflicts to go on a long time because their favored person was in the wrong. The conflict then festered, spread down the ranks, and eventually led to the organization losing some talented employees. This strategy becomes especially pronounced when leaders are collaborating with their peers, i.e., in a group where they are not the leader. I have seen situations where not confronting their peers has led to bad product decisions leading to huge technical and management debt. I have seen leaders promise promotions or relocations and when they were unable to deliver on that promise, asked somebody else to deliver the bad news.
The challenge of course is that this strategy doesn’t work – the leader is only kicking the proverbial can down the road (or perhaps they don’t expect to be around to face consequences). And I can guarantee that what is now an uncomfortable conversation is soon going to be a confrontational/hell-breaks-loose kind of conversation. Obviously, leaders should not be going around looking for uncomfortable conversations (that’s the tyrant leader) but they shouldn’t be avoiding those either.
So, if you are a leader committed to delivering good long-term outcomes for your company – stop intellectualizing away the situation, be authentic and have that uncomfortable conversation right away!!