Tough Conversations of Leadership

Leadership requires mutual trust but also the courage to talk the truth. I am surprised when I learn a “leader” is hesitant to have tough conversations about attitude or performance. It is even more shocking when I discover they keep performance files on direct reports discussed at annual or semi-annual performance reviews.

Employees have expectations for the leaders they choose to follow. They expect the leader is honest with them about their performance. Without realizing this fundamental honesty, they will do what they are told, but the fire and passion are missing from their work. What they want from a leader is frequent, consistent, and timely feedback. Workers don’t walk into their job saying, “I’m going to do my best to mess up today.” They come to work to do what is expected of them and doing it well. If we agree this is their daily motive, then we are assuming honorable intentions. When someone makes a mistake, the mistake was made because of wrong information, inadequate training, or bad judgment. Don’t expect to correct these causes swiftly.

Here is how to correct mistakes due to inadequate information. Ask them where they got the information. Correction of errors is not a judgmental issue but a question of curious inquiry. When they tell you the source of information, you are presented with a teaching moment, don’t just tell them why the information was wrong but, more importantly, why it was bad information. Adults want and need the understanding to learn thoroughly. Then allow them to correct the mistake and acknowledge them when they have righted the wrong.

Suppose the mistake was due to inadequate or incomplete training; shame on us. We are responsible for giving employees the tools to be successful, and one of the essential tools is quality training. Training is creating a teaching moment for us to re-teach the proper process to do their job, but we owe them an apology for failing them in their training. Under your watchful eye and tutelage, allow them to do the job the right way and applaud them when they are successful.

Suppose the mistake was due to bad judgment. Ask the employee what their logic was and what assumptions they used in determining the course of action they took. It is again imperative that we let them talk us through their process and then talk them through the proper logic and process they should have used. We must continue to allow them to correct their mistakes and acknowledge when they have been successful.

Suppose you find yourself in that rare situation where an employee refuses your coaching and training and continues to make avoidable mistakes; you owe them the respect to help them redirect their careers elsewhere. Your employees know when they are under-performing, and they expect you to confront them with this information. To delay this conversation allows them to build up their immune system and create their defense mechanisms so when the situation becomes untenable, a scene can ensue.

A leader’s job is to help employees find success, whether it is as part of your team or with a team somewhere else. Don’t spend unnecessary time and unnecessary stress over an employee that is not in the right situation. Help them become experts in their role or find a position at which they can excel.

About Rich Jones

Strategic consultant and Keynote Speaker, Rich brings a deep experience in the disciplines of Strategic Planning, Marketing, Business Development, Digital Transformation, Data Utilization, Leadership Development and Cultural Alignment. A husband, father, runner, cyclist, beer drinker with a passion for life.


  1. Mark Arnold (@jmarkarnold) on October 1, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Great post–and right on target! People appreciate honesty; and you can only have tough conversations if they are honest. You should never gloss anything with your employees. Share with them the good, the bad and the ugly. Managers avoid hard conversations. Leaders embrace them.

    • rich0747 on October 1, 2013 at 9:04 am

      Thanks for your added insights Mark!

    • rich0747 on November 15, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks for the value added comment Mark.

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