We’ve talked in the past about having difficult conversations at work – something even the strongest leaders often struggle with. The importance of being brave enough to have these conversations was driven home to me recently in Brene Brown’s phenomenal new book “Dare to Lead”, in which she shares some sage advice: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind”.
Let’s face it: as human beings, we want to be liked. This is a natural part of the human experience – as social creatures, we are wired to want to connect, and we generally try to avoid situations where we may run into conflict and disapproval. Difficult conversations are extremely uncomfortable and feel risky because our deepest instincts tell us they will break our connection with the other person – a disheartening prospect for most. Far easier to avoid these conversations, or muddy the truth a little, in order to keep the peace.
Here’s the problem when leaders take this approach: when a team member’s performance needs improvement, withholding honest feedback in the name of ‘kindness’ is actually anything but. Ultimately, the employees lack of performance will be felt – perhaps the employee with ultimately suffer, as they fail to learn, improve and advance, while the rest of the team pays the price by having to pick up the slack (or will just be frustrated that they are delivering while someone else is not). Despite your best intentions, the reality of your ‘kindness’ as a leader is that it was actually a self-protective act at the expense of your team. You’ve sacrificed your team’s well-being for your own comfort.
And the truth is, you haven’t done yourself any favors either; rather, you’ve just pushed the problem a little into the future, where it will be bigger and more difficult to deal with as a result of your procrastination. Meanwhile, your team will likely feel frustration that issues are not being dealt with, and may resent that you let the under-performing individual off the hook. Team members may vent their frustrations to one another, creating a negative team environment and lowering morale. When your team can’t rely on you to be honest and forthright, trust is eroded and can be difficult to earn back. And ultimately, as a leader, you WILL have to hold that team member to account at some point; as Brene Brown says: “Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind.”
What’s the alternative? As Brown succinctly states, “clear is kind”. Be clear about what the issue is, and what you expect in terms of a resolution. For example, “I’m concerned that you have missed 2 deadlines this quarter. Going forward, the project requires a weekly update on the status of items, so that we can be sure timelines are being met.”
This doesn’t mean you have to be rude, harsh or unnecessarily critical – simply stick to the facts of what is going on, what your concern is, and what the expectation is. Honesty can also include being honest about your intentions: “I want you to be successful as a member of this team, and I can’t help you be successful if we don’t address this issue.”
The bottom line is that the kindest thing you can do for a team member is to assume the best of them – that they are capable of doing what is expected, and strong and professional enough to deal with honest feedback about their performance, even when it isn’t praise – and act accordingly. Give them the opportunity to succeed, even if it means putting yourself in the awkward position of having to give honest, difficult feedback. As a leader, it’s the kindest thing you can do.