The Conversation Not Held
Guest post by Patrick Jinks, PhD, President, The Jinks Perspective
I work almost exclusively with nonprofit leaders. I coach board members and executives on strategy, leadership, and engagement. Over the past decade, I have noticed a trend. A majority of social sector leaders’ psychometric profiles indicate strong altruistic motivation, high empathy, and a stabilizing, nurturing style of leadership. While this is not surprising in a sector designed to help others, and while these are valuable traits, the implications include a downside. The empathetic intentions can have unintended consequences when they avoid difficult conversations.
You’re Not Helping
When leaders favor their employees’ feelings at the expense of productivity, culture, or the accomplishment of key objectives, the entire organization suffers. While leaders think they are being kind and patient, their reticence to confront employees with corrective guidance shapes a path to failure and dysfunction. The employee continues underperforming, the rest of the team becomes frustrated with the leader for not addressing this issue, and the organization’s mission pays the price.
This dynamic is not limited to supervisor/employee relationships. I see leaders avoid critical conversations with the board chairs, community leaders, and program partners. This choice leads to a buildup of tension that will eventually show up in a toxic manner. It erodes relationships and trust, and it can make a leader appear weak to others. The good intention is to avoid conflict and maintain peace. However, the result is a missed opportunity at best.
It's All About Framing
A typical coaching session between an executive leader and me often includes exchanges similar to the following:
Leader: I have a board chair who frequently cancels meetings with me on late notice, and it throws some critical work well behind targeted timelines. They serve on 3 other boards, and ours tends to take a back seat for them.
Me: Have you had a conversation about this with them?
Me: How might you approach them with this concern?
Leader: Well, I could probably … (proceeds to brilliantly articulate exactly what they know they SHOULD do).
I find that most leaders have simply not paused long enough to frame the conversation in a manner that makes sense. They envision a bad ending rather than a productive beginning. For the example CEO above, the conversation could simply start with some fair questions:
“Could rearranging our board schedule help you be more present?”
“How can I help you get on track in terms of our board schedule and need?”
“Are you feeling in over your head with your various board obligations? How can we help you resolve that?”
Beyond that, a respectful but direct narration of how this issue is affecting the organization is also in order. Behavior that is simply not appropriate must be called out. Effective leaders can do so in a manner that is deferential and direct at the same time.
Usually Not As Bad As You Think
In many follow-up coaching sessions with leaders, I am told that the conversation went far better than expected. I hear stories of how the other party felt relieved, embarrassed, or even grateful for the conversation. Real success happens when we are able to get to that point through a practice session of the conversation, even before the real conversation takes place. I will often ask a coachee, “How do you think this person will respond if you bring this issue to their attention?” More often than not, leaders expect that the recipient will be open to the conversation. Role-playing this conversation is often revealing for the leader. It is then that they realize how simple this should be.
In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott describes the continuum from what she calls “ruinous empathy” to a more desired state of “compassionate candor.” It turns out that leaders can be both empathetic and direct. In fact, they must.
Overcoming Faulty Assumptions
Often, the failure to facilitate an important conversation is a function of assumption. We assume what the other person is thinking or how they would respond to a corrective conversation. Our assumptions are often wrong, and not providing the conversation to come to alignment is unfair to the party involved. The person or people involved also have assumptions. For example, they may assume that because their leader has not expressed any dissatisfaction with certain behavior, the behavior must be acceptable.
An example of where this shows up is in the performance appraisal process. A leader meets annually with their team member to rate them on certain performance dimensions, and the employee is shocked at the low scores. Why would they be shocked? Most likely, it is because the leader has avoided the important conversations throughout the year that would align expectations with reality before real problems surface.
There are many pitfalls to avoid when holding critical conversations. Not having the conversation in the first place may be chief among them.
About the author: Patrick Jinks, PhD
As President of The Jinks Perspective, Patrick coaches nonprofit leaders. He is a multi-bestselling author, a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a teaching member of The Right Question Institute. He is a Certified Influencer Trainer through Vital Smarts — the collaborative that brought us Crucial Conversations. His speaking stages range from TEDx to The United Nations.
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