Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust-They are Willing to Engage in Difficult Conversations

I'd originally written about this in the context of "giving honest feedback".  Upon reflection I think it's far more than just being willing to send a tough message.  I think its more accurate to say one builds trust by demonstrating the willingness to engage in a difficult conversation.  Everyone is perfectly willing to provide feedback when things go well and we are congratulating others on a job well done.  When there has been an error or target not met or customer complaint...or any number of unpleasant events....that's when conversations get difficult.

We've all probably experienced the dilemma...if I don't discuss this issue things may get worse, the event could occur again, my own frustrations will rise and I deny the other person the opportunity to improve.  If I do raise the issue, emotions are likely to run high, I may be rejected or attacked, or the relationship might be damaged.  There are many things that make these situations charged...fear of the consequences of being blamed for a bad outcome, ones identity as a competent and capable employee, a desire to avoid hurting others or being hurt yourself,

Good leaders learn the skills necessary to engage in these conversations.  They understand and can apply dialogue concepts like mental models and the ladder of inference.  They understand how different people can interpret the same event in very different ways.  They practice inquiry and advocacy skills.  They approach a difficult conversation from a learning stance meant to explore how everyone, including the leader, may have contributed to the issue at hand.

The book Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most is an excellent reference for those who want to get better at this particular leadership skill.  I've worked with one of the authors in a program to develop this skill among emerging leaders in a US company and seen the marked improvement among those leaders as a result.

The point of this post is that everyone finds themselves facing the dilemma of how to confront an error or failure of some sort.  Great leaders develop the skills that give them the will to engage in these inevitable conversations.  Staff respect that willingness, the opportunity to improve, the genuine dialogue and the how-have-we-all- contributed-to-this" approach.  It builds trust. 

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