Preventing difficult conversations… not what you think

Today’s HR professionals are inundated with tips, models, courses and narrative around the need to arm leaders with the skills and tools required to have difficult conversations with their people. Difficult often translates to crucial and the topics are the kinds of things that keep us up at night: Poor performance, unmet needs, salary rollbacks, layoffs, addiction – every last one of them difficult.

This morning I opened my inbox and noticed an HRMA sponsored course titled Succeeding at Challenging Conversations, a good match to the book summary of Crucial Conversations that arrived earlier in the week. Take a minute to Google difficult, tough or hard conversations and you quickly learn that you are not alone in being apprehensive of honest connections about critical topics; not by a long shot.

From my own experience the vast majority of “difficult” conversations that HR talent support day-to-day are performance based. Typically they stem from a leader, peer or report struggling with unmet needs, a fear of confronting the issue and how they will be perceived if they do. This usually equates to burning valuable time and mind real estate envisioning the most negative confrontations and outcomes, ones that almost never happen.

Even seasoned leaders struggle and there is no question that today’s leaders need skills to manage difficult conversations. What surprises me however is the amount of energy, resources and time that is devoted to building skills around the handling of the difficult conversation vs. all of the time and space in between (the how, what and why these performance conversations grow to be so epic in our minds).

Doctors and Healers know that preventative care makes for a richer and longer life, yet at work we often build critical skills around the dire outcomes instead of applying the learning, energy and time to preventative care with and for our people. What work can we do before that crucial point to make these difficult performance conversations easier and even less frequent?

One would assume with so much focus on preparing for and having the difficult conversation that the pre-work to avoid it must be very difficult, technical and cumbersome. I’m not sure I agree and am continually surprised by how often the simplest recommendations around good leadership plain and simple come up again and again. It goes something like this…

Build a strong team – and if you don’t have the option of a candidate with all of the required skills & experience make darn sure they have a willingness to both learn, to be coached and to coach up.

Know what success looks like for yourself, your business and your people. Most importantly don’t keep it a secret – tell the success story daily.

Give your people the access to the metrics and indicators that tell them how they are doing – listen for hurdles and watch for any missing skill or will that could sabotage success.

Feedback should be part of your day and theirs – every day. When discussions and connections only happen when things are going wrong, you set a tricky precedent.

Accountability, profit and strong business results are not dirty words – don’t be afraid to expect the best from your people and to acknowledge when something isn’t right immediately. Demonstrate a genuine commitment to figuring it out.

Create a culture and environment where people have a chance to what they do best – to really shine.

Here’s hoping the next email subject line in my inbox reads something more like Preventing difficult conversations… one good leadership practice at a time.

Liza Walli is the author of this Guest Blog for Impact People Practices. She is the HR Director for Zip Trek Ecotours, a progressive organization based out of Whistler but expanding globally as we speak. I have known Liza for years and believe her to be a shining example of “HR of the Future”. Christine


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