Tough Conversations of Leadership

Leadership requires mutual trust but also the courage to talk truth. It is with constant amazement when I learn a “leader” is hesitant to have tough conversations about attitude or performance. It is even more shocking when I learn they keep performance files on direct reports that are 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 necessary honesty, they will do what they are told, but the fire and passion is missing from their work. What they want from a leader is frequent, consistent and timely feedback. Workers don’t walk into work saying, “I’m going to do my best to mess up today.” They come to work with the intention of doing what is expected of them and doing it well. If we agree this is their daily motive, then we are assuming righteous intentions. So when a mistake was made it was made because of bad information, bad training or bad judgement. These three causes can be corrected simply and swiftly.

Here is how to correct mistakes due to bad information. Ask them where they got the information. Thus us not a judgmental question but a question of curious inquiry. When they tell you the source if the information you are presented with a teaching moment. Don’t just tell them why the information was wrong but more important why it was bad information. Adults want and need understanding to fully learn. Then allow them to correct the mistake and acknowledge them when they have righted the wrong.

If the mistake was due to poor or incomplete training, shame on us. We have the responsibility to give employees the tools to be successful and one of the most basic tools is quality training. This creates another 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

If the mistake was due to bad judgement. 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 again allow them to correct their mistakes and acknowledge when they have been successful.

If 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 undue time and unnecessary stress over an employee that is not in the right situation. Help them become expert in their role or find a role they can excel at.o-TRUST-FALLS-facebook

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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