The highest performing businesses have a leaders who are proficient at having difficult conversations within their organizations. In fact, we know that when they use mindful leadership techniques, there is a correlation with improved productivity.
Utilizing Active Listening Skills
Active listening is comprised primarily of eliminating all distractions and giving the other person our full attention. As we give that attention, we are not devising our defense, retort or follow-up question while someone is talking.
By being fully present, we are taking in all verbal and non-verbal communication so that we can better choose the response that will benefit all the stakeholders in the process.
Behind Every Complaint Lies a Request
Complaining wastes energy and rarely solves the problem. Unfortunately, there are actually positive reinforcements for resentful employees that keep complaining alive.
We bond with co-workers over perceptions of unfairness or being aggrieved.
Often, complaining comes from an angry place that has less to do with resolving a situation than from the positive reinforcement someone receives by displaying their anger.
In those situations, we (as leaders) can subtly call these colleagues out by saying something like,
“I can see that you’re very passionate about this issue and I’m glad we have the opportunity to do something about it together.”
This kind of response can diffuse anger by showing the employee that you’re actually on their side and are pleased that, like you, she wants to create a better environment in which to work.
This removes the anger from the complaint and transfers it into a request that will most certainly result in improved efficiency as well as a teachable moment for the employee. It also takes a negative contributor to the organization’s culture and transitions them into a positive one.
As others observe this, the employee’s resentful reputation changes for the better and (consciously or not) your reputation as an empowering leader improves.
Making Stuff Up
When we are provided with inaccurate or incomplete information, we make stuff up (MSU) to fill in the gaps that are usually incorrect. MSUing creates two issues:
- Resentment due to the lack of information; and
- Additional work for the leader who must use more time and energy to correct the misperception.
An example of MSUing might be:
“They have enough money to give us raises but they’re paying all those executives huge bonuses with it.
MSUing is perfectly natural for humans and we really can’t blame our employees for doing so. The problem is that we don’t check out what we’re MSUing to see how close it is to objective reality.
So, how do we handle MSUing?
When we’re talking to our employees, we have to be mindful of their individual frames of reference. We can’t have all our difficult conversations with resentful employees the same way.
Is this person frequently playing the role of the victim?
- If so, her MSUing will likely have a more paranoid flavor to it.
Is this person historically a good performer who has only started to struggle with her performance recently?
- Her MSUing may be a genuine attempt to more completely fill in those gaps with missing information so she can get back to the level of performance to which you and she are more accustomed.
To reinforce the solution-focused partnership with her, ask the employee to gather feedback from others on the issue and you can do the same so that the focus stays on solving the problem and not on who’s right or wrong.
Also, be mindful of verbal communication:
- Stay away from words like “always” and “never” because the other person will undoubtedly find the one exception to prove you wrong.
- Watch out for other continuum-ending words like “awful”, “horrible”, and “terrible” and, if they are used, take that opportunity to put the issue on the table in perspective (e.g., “I think I’m going to die if I have to review my metrics one more time with my supervisor.” “Really? You’re going to die? ”)
On the non-verbal side:
- Be aware of your facial expressions;
- If possible, come out from behind a desk so that it is not perceived as a barrier;
- Maintaining eye contact throughout the conversation; and
- Make sure your face is not conveying anger or displeasure.
Fear of Failing
As leaders we have the self-inflicted stress of looking competent to those with whom we have contact on a regular basis. However, we must be open to being wrong.
As we utilize our active listening skills, we open our minds to what the other person is saying and hopefully to the solutions that they will eventually bring to the table. If we are honest about how the best ideas come from those who actually do the work, then we need to walk the talk and prepare ourselves to be wrong (and to celebrate that!).
As mindful leaders who aren’t afraid to fail, we become more approachable because our employees feel as if their opinions actually count and their contribution is valuable. In turn, that diffuses their resentment and makes conversations more lateral than vertical which is exactly why some companies actually celebrate their failures.
Each time we employ these techniques, our brains rewire themselves a little bit more and, what seems so difficult to do now, will come secondhand down the road (in the same way that piano and soccer got easier the more we practiced).
More importantly, we are now contributing to creating a mindful culture where most people are more interested in the organization’s success and their individual contribution than to more selfish agendas.
We must start with ourselves.
Our roles as leaders don’t infer that we are responsible for saving others from themselves in the context of difficult conversations. It does mean that we try our best to change ourselves and coach others with humility and transparency with regard to our strengths and failures.
Mindful Follow-Up Questions
What opportunities do you have to improve your active listening when communicating with difficult employees?
How can you start to change your organization’s culture by making sure that complaints are converted into requests?
Do you give your employees a chance to check out their MSUing against reality?
As a leader in your organization, do you have permission to fail and utilize the teachable moments from those failures?