My Leadership Fails: Difficult Conversations, Conflict & Feedback

Julius Caeser“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” Ken Blanchard

“Businesses don’t fail for want of intelligent staff, they fail for want of intelligent and courageous feedback” Unknown 

“Feedback is the bridge between strategy and successful execution” Dr Pete

High performance teams thrive on feedback. But sadly, many of us avoid feedback and settle for mediocrity, whilst gossiping to our teammates about what is wrong and backstabbing our managers.

Having difficult conversations and giving staff feedback is tough!

When I was a senior executive in a large corporation, my managers and supervisors were always telling me what’s wrong with their staff. ‘So and so’ is always late, rude, lazy, manipulative etc. etc. When I would talk to the staff they would always tell me what was wrong with their managers in a similar way. When I would sit in the lunch room and listen to the chatter, the gossip told a similar story.

Yet whenever I asked someone if they had directly spoken to the person they had an issue with and given clear and specific feedback they would either say that they were going to soon or would not try as the person doesn’t listen anyway!

Feedback is the bridge between business strategy and successful execution. The failure to provide people with specific real-time feedback lies at the heart of most business failures.

There are plenty of early warning signs for business failure – team conflict, poor quality products, poor customer service, system failures in administration or finance – all of which feature heavily in negative gossip and backstabbing before the eventual disaster strikes.

Gossip & Backstabbing is Easy

So why do manny people engage in gossiping and backstabbing rather than give direct feedback?

The term ‘backstabbing’ has a much darker truth behind it then most people realise. It was derived from history initially from the death of Julius Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Caesar was literally stabbed in the back by his friend Brutus which was seen as a deceptive and cowardly act compared to Brutus engaging Caesar in a fair and open confrontation.

Whilst Brutus was a coward for his actions, many people seriously under-estimate how hard it is (unless you’re a psychopath of course!) to engage people in fair and open conflict – not just in the arena of physical conflict and battles, but also in the arena of psychological conflict and office politics.

 Lessons From Military History

Our tendency to avoid direct conflict and instead adopt indirect means is deeply ingrained in our primordial instincts. We, as human beings, have a bias not to harm each other that is incredibly strong. Studies examining soldiers on the battlefield in World War 2 show that only 15-20% of soldiers fired directly at the enemy – even when they were being fired upon by the enemy! That means only 1 in 5 soldiers was actually defending themselves from attack! This finding in military psychology has been confirmed in numerous battlefields both before and after World War II and had led to dramatic changes in training to help soldiers overcome their innate tendency to avoid conflict and in turn save their own lives when under attack (but more about that later).

Safe In Society But Toxic In The Office

The phenomenon of refusing to harm other people is disastrous on the battlefield but conversely incredibly helpful in maintaining peace and order in society. It is clearly a good thing to avoid conflict and violence wherever possible. However, there is an accidental side effect of this innate desire to avoid conflict, which creates some unexpected toxic outcomes in workplaces. Our desire to avoid conflict is so strong that it extends well beyond violence and physical confrontation into psychology, communication and feedback.

Let’s face it, we all know it is much easier to complain about someone’s work performance or behavior to similarly frustrated co-workers (i.e., backstabbing) than it is to have the courage to confront them directly and calmly and clearly give specific constructive feedback. I believe this avoidance pattern is rooted in the innate conflict avoidance mechanism and as such, is much harder to change than we realize!

Direct Feedback is Hard and Necessary at Work

So how do we overcome our tendency to avoid conflict in the workplace and learn to have difficult conversations and give direct feedback? Well let’s go back a step to see how the military address this issue. Firstly, they use an important psychological construct called “distancing” – namely, the idea that when you can emotionally distance yourself from hurting someone else you are more likely to be effective in conflict.

Military techniques such as mechanical distance (i.e., using long range weapons that do not involve face-to-face contact) can be translated into the office environment in healthy strategies such as the use of 360 degree feedback, peer review, customer satisfaction surveys and performance reporting systems transparent to all members of the team OR unhealthy strategies such as the use of email wars and social media.

Social distance is another important technique used to improve effectiveness in conflict. In the military this is about classifying people in terms of rank and stature and dictating orders and actions accordingly. In an office setting this is translated into healthy strategies of clear role descriptions and performance management conversations that are fair, firm and results focused. This ensures we do not get swayed by emotions and instead enables improvement, business survival and job security for the person who may otherwise have continued to under perform. ‘Around the room’ feedback where every staff member participates in a discussion also lessens social pressure and risks of unhealthy personalizing. Unhealthy use of social distance in the office setting is about pecking order behavior, cliques and favoritism.

 Moral distance is also important in understanding conflict. In an office environment, managers are more likely to have difficult conversations with subordinates if they believe the actions of staff are immoral and damaging to the company. They are also more inclined to engage in healthy conflict if they share similar values of their superiors and align to the company mission, strategy and goals.

The other (and arguably most important) strategy the military use to make soldiers more effective in conflict is rehearsal and role-play – also known as military exercises. That is, they repeatedly simulate the actions they would need to take to be effective in conflict – this was one of the most important training issues to address after the massive losses the allies faced in the First World War. In the office environment this is translated to frontline leadership skills training and regular skills drills and role-plays where leaders can effectively practice the professional skills they need to have effective (and supportive) difficult conversations about staff performance and behavior.

Difficult Conversations: Performance and Behavior

What two topics are the most difficult to discuss (and most important) at work?

Work performance is about the amount, quality and speed of work a person does relative to targets. Where poor performance occurs there is a negative outcome for the individual (either lower self esteem or encouragement of a lax work ethic), the team (unequal distribution of workloads and team conflict) and the organization (poor productivity, lowered profitability and toxic culture). To prevent performance problems, managers need to provide feedback to staff to ensure they are clear about their specific actions that are aligned to the business vision and strategy as well as measure and report their achievements against targets.

Workplace behavior is about the way in which a person engages and interacts with other employees, clients and customers. Poor behavior at work in the form of ignoring and avoidance, abusive language, threats, sexual harassment, and inappropriate jokes and humor can be highly distressing for the victims and witnesses and lead to formal claims of bullying, harassment, discrimination and work related stress, and cause massive reputational and financial damage to the business. To prevent workplace behavior problems managers need to be aware of their company’s code of conduct and values and provide feedback to their staff, as well as role model appropriate workplace behaviors.

4 Success Strategies: Difficult Conversations, Conflict & Feedback

To prevent leadership fails, managers need to be able to engage in regular difficult conversations and provide direct feedback about work performance and behavior to their staff. As we have discussed, this direct approach to feedback is much more difficult than many of us realize due to an innate desire to avoid confrontation whatever the cost. To overcome this avoidance tendency we need to use the strategies of ‘distancing’ and ‘ rehearsal’ that had their origins in military training protocols.

The 4 healthy conflict strategies we have discussed in this article that will improve an organization and team’s performance relate to:

(1) Effective use of assessment surveys such as 360 leadership feedback, customer satisfaction feedback and performance reporting systems that are transparent to all team members.

(2) Effective provision of role clarity and task allocation systems and clear and consistent use of performance feedback that is job focused/not person focused.

(3) A strong alignment with the company mission and values and reference to these values when managing performance and behavior that is contraindicated.

(4) Practice, practice, practice! – The use of behavioral training and role-plays for frontline leaders to be effective (and supportive) in having difficult conversations about staff performance and behavior.

 Difficult Conversations & Your Leadership Skills

Take some time out to do a quick self-assessment of your ability as a leader and team member to use the 4 Success Strategies to improve the feedback and performance of your organization!

Ride The Waves of Life!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

READ THE BOOK! If you liked this Article then read ‘Surviving & Thriving’ by Dr Pete! Book ST

Sign up NOW to receive another FREE article each week!