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Why most leaders avoid hard conversations

Why Most Leaders Avoid Hard Conversations

Why do so many leaders choose to avoid hard conversations? In my experience, it’s much more about a lack of will than a lack of skill.

Let’s face it, it’s not that hard to avoid them. For a start, it’s likely that your leader isn’t having the hard conversations with you, so you won’t feel any pressure from above to have them with your people.

And the only person who really knows you’re avoiding a hard conversation is… you! Like every other human on the planet, you have a boundless capacity for rationalization.

When we think about stepping into a potentially risky situation, we’re inundated with negative thoughts. This is just our reptile brain warning us of the danger, trying to convince us to step back from the ledge.

I know what’s going through your head, because it goes through all of our heads. You’re no different from anyone else. We all face similar fears and doubts.

So, let’s see if any of these ring a bell with you.

‘What if this conversation escalates into conflict?’

‘I shouldn’t criticize or be negative to Marty… what if it demotivates him?’

‘I don’t really have enough evidence or examples to speak to Marty about his performance’

‘What if Marty disagrees with my assessment of the situation, and I find it difficult to justify my view over his?

‘What if I haven’t set Marty up for success? Maybe it’s my fault as a leader… I haven’t given him enough support?’

‘Maybe I’m asking too much of Marty. Maybe I’m too demanding as a boss?’

‘Maybe Marty just needs more time to improve?’

All of these thoughts stop us from having the conversations we should be having, and the result of that is… we simply don’t have enough of them.

Then, when a situation becomes so dire that a difficult conversation is impossible to avoid, the dread and the fear are self-reinforcing.

When you’re fearful of a conversation, you handle it poorly and it doesn’t go well. Guess what? You’ve just reinforced to yourself that difficult conversations are hard, and that you don’t like having them.

What do you do then? You strengthen your desire to avoid any difficult conversations, both consciously and subconsciously. All the while rationalizing why you don’t need to have the conversation, or fooling yourself that it’s not a priority compared to your other busy work.

Now, because you’ve missed so many opportunities to have a difficult conversation, you don’t improve. You never get to feel comfortable, and you rob yourself of the opportunity to become more skillful and capable when those situations present themselves.

And, when you have to take on the most difficult conversations (e.g. terminating someone’s employment), you’ll find that you’re both unwilling and incapable of doing that competently.

And it’s already hard enough: you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t find it difficult. As Jack Welch once said, “If you enjoy sacking someone, you’re not fit to be a leader. But if you can’t do it, you’re not fit to be a leader.”

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