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Squaring Up to the tricky conversation

As a leader, you may have heard David Morrison’s words "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. In a leadership role, such as a Clinical Manager, or Team Leader, what you are willing to tolerate in your workplace sets the tone for your team culture. This seems clear cut in the case of obviously physically or psychologically unsafe behaviour. But what if what’s needed, is a potentially tricky conversation about a seemingly “little thing” – a worry you have about someone’s attitude to their work, or whether they do what they say they will do or how they choose to communicate?

In the allied health professions, we may think of ourselves as a “people persons”. We feel that we are quite reasonable communicators, that we like interacting with people, and that we enjoy learning from others. However, it is not uncommon for us to feel apprehensive about having a potentially tricky conversation, especially with a team member whom we lead, and work with on a day to day basis, about a behaviour we have observed. So why might we avoid a tricky conversation?

  • We may perceive that we don’t have time, or emotional energy, for this type of conversation – they are usually not scheduled for!

  • We don’t want to upset the other person

  • We may feel fear about what might happen next

  • We may hope that a situation works itself out, the person self-reflects and spontaneously self-corrects their behaviour

  • We may feel doubt on whether there really needs to be a conversation

  • We might think very carefully about what to say, but feel that we simply can’t prepare for what to say in response, once the conversation is in flow, and feel unnerved by that

  • We may feel resentment on the tax on our time and emotional energy to need to have this type of conversation, such as the thought - I never signed up for this!

The need for that tricky conversation with our team member around a behaviour that does not meet your expectation, does not go away. In fact, it seeps insidiously throughout our relationship with that person. It’s likely to show up in our body language in our interactions with them and possibly others, and may even interrupt our relaxation time and our sleep. We may find ourselves “debriefing” situations with our partners, colleagues or friends, in effect transmitting the need for the tricky conversation in any direction but the obvious one. Our internal disquiet can be experienced as a mental burden, weighing us down and occupying our minds and mental energy in a continuous loop of rumination.

The alternative is to square up to having the tricky conversation. I’ll be absolutely honest, this is something that I have been challenged by in the past, and I need to keep practicing. I find this topic on squaring up, and practicing doing so, to be of great interest to many of the people I coach, too. Here are the opportunities that I feel I personally stand to lose, by not having the tricky conversation that I need to have:

  • Having influence as a leader, to drive and inspire better performance – i.e. to do my job!

  • Learning – about the reason/s why I’ve observed a behaviour, or not observed it, and what my part might be, in the behaviour

  • Thinking about what it is exactly that I’ve observed and what I consider the impact is of that behaviour

  • Really noticing what feelings are coming up for me, when I think about that behaviour

  • Insight into the others’ perspective about the behaviour and the chance to validate this – and thus the chance to deepen the relationship I have with the other person

  • Actively improving my own communication skills, through asking curious questions, listening deeply to the answers and expressing myself clearly, as confirmed by the other person’s confirmation of what they have heard and understood

  • Living out the value I hold, that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them – myself included.

  • Modelling to others that we are curious about other’s perspectives and that we tackle the hard stuff in the way we work together.

Once we accept squaring up to having a tricky conversation, we are then ready to learn. We’ve accepted that we will always make time to prepare and have these conversations – as they are important opportunities to learn and to communicate; and that they are literally, leadership in action.

Preparing for how we will be curious, how we will listen, clarifying the behaviour we expect instead of what it was we observed, how we will communicate that expectation and how we will help the other person build ownership of their behaviour ahead of the conversation is all a good idea. It’s critical too, to reflect on the conversation after it has occurred. What has the person committed to do? What support, if any, do they need to be accountable to that commitment? What would I do differently if I was to have that conversation again? What other skills or supports do I need in this area, going forward? All of this IS the work of a leader, and we and our teams have so much to gain by squaring up to it.

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