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How to Develop Leaders

How to Make Difficult Performance Conversations Easy

Okay. So welcome to another one of my weekly ToddTalks, which always exist to equip you with ideas that you can use immediately to improve your leadership, make a greater difference in the world, and help other people do the same. Today, I want to talk to you about a belief that severely blocks the effectiveness of leaders all over the world, and it’s the belief that if they tell people the truth of what they think, their teams, their managers, their colleagues, their customers, then bad things will necessarily follow.

One of the most common places this belief blocks leaders’ effectiveness is during performance conversations with their people. So now, I want to share the story of Helen, a people manager, because I think it holds important lessons for all of us on how we might have honest conversations with our people about their performance without offending or demotivating them. So let me read you Helen’s story in her own words.

Julie is a VP people manager on my team, and I noticed she was consistently hesitant to challenge her people’s performance issues, instead she gave soft challenges and then picked up the slack herself, which meant her people weren’t growing and she was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work she had taken on. I think that’s something we could probably all relate to. However, even seeing all this from the sidelines, I was very wary of correcting her too directly. I was worried that Julie would take the feedback in the wrong way, deny the issue, and walk away offended.

The entire thing just seemed really socially awkward. Okay. Let’s hit the pause button for a second. Notice the irony here. Helen’s complaint is that Julie wasn’t challenging her people and Helen wasn’t willing to challenge Julie on the fact that she wasn’t challenging her people. Let’s continue. But after attending the breakthrough coaching program, I decided I would apply the real talk tool to this situation. I liked that it was a scientific approach that justified being more direct. So I ended up having a really open conversation with Julie.

I started by saying that I want to share my perspective and get her reaction, and then I explained what I saw as her biggest performance gap and opportunity, and then asked her what she thought about that. Much to my surprise, she actually agreed and said that my view was aligned with her own thinking, and from there, she was very open and receptive to what I had to say. By being more direct and open, I was able to create productive tension during the conversation and an open conversation rather than a guard one with soft messages.

Honestly, it was quite liberating, and the best part of it is that the conversation has had a big impact. Julie is now more challenging. For example, I overhear conversations where she’s pushing back on her team and telling them things like, “You need to do a better job before this comes to me.” As a result, she’s much less overwhelmed with the amount of work she’s taken on, which has given her more time to think effectively, and it’s also freed up my time to do more strategic work as there are fewer escalations to me.

First of all, I love hearing stories like this because I love seeing people overcome their fears and lean into the real conversations they need to have. So what are we learning from this story? Well, it certainly is a story about courage because Helen was much more candid with Julie despite her fears, but she wasn’t just more courageous and candid. She was also more curious because she asked Julie what Julie thought about her views on her performance gap.

So while the truth may set us free, it’s by combining it with curiosity that can turn a potential conflict into a real collaboration between two adults both searching for the truth together. Okay. So I hope you found this Todd Talk valuable, and I look forward to talking to you at the next one, but until then, be candid, be compassionate, be collaborative, and above all, be curious.

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