How do you address sensitive or controversial issues effectively within your team? Often, healthcare leaders mistakenly feel they must choose between (a) addressing the issue and damaging relationships or (b) ignoring the issue for the sake of the relationship. High-performing leaders manage to do both, addressing delicate topics in a way that strengthens relationships, team performance and engagement.
In our previous post, we covered five practices to improve the quality of your interpersonal and team dynamics.
Here’s a brief recap:
- Be thoughtful about your desired outcome rather than advocating your specific solution.
- Focus on what you want to accomplish, not what you don’t want.
- Pause before making up a story about another’s intentions and acting on your assumptions.
- Close the gap between your intentions and others’ interpretations of your actions.
- When issues arise, do your best to have direct, timely conversations.
In today’s discussion, we’ll dive deeper into that last bullet: crucial conversations.
To that end, we’ll guide you through a few principles that will help you cultivate the right environment and favorable conditions for leading tough conversations successfully.
Align your team around your shared purpose
Make clear that your goal is to find a way to build a stronger relationship, not “get your licks” in, so you can more effectively work together to advance your shared purpose.
Maintain a safe environment for dialogue
Tell your story, what you know, what you assume, how you feel, and give the other person a chance to tell their story. Do NOT presume to describe their intentions and motives, nor label their behavior (e.g., “untrustworthy,” “passive-aggressive”).
You may share that someone’s actions or words provoke those feelings in you, but give them the chance to tell their story rather than put them in the position to defend themselves against the story you have made up.
Remember words matter when trying to keep things safe.
“I want to offer a different perspective for consideration based on my experience” versus “I want to challenge/push back” is more likely to foster dialogue and less likely to provoke defensiveness.
Focus the discussion on the issues and be wary of the need to be right. When discussions become a contest of ideas rather than a sharing of perspectives it is easy for the agenda to shift to self-protection. When we start to self-protect and defend, we shut down the conversation and reduce our chances of finding a compatible path forward that respects the legitimate concerns of all parties.
Speak tentatively, not declaratively.
“When this happens, it feels like there is a breach of trust. I know this is not your intention. Can you help me understand what you are thinking?” is very different than “You are not trustworthy!”
Commit to specific behavioral commitments designed to prevent a recurrence of the problem.
Anticipate challenges and decide how you’ll behave when difficulties arise. Examples might include:
- “If you have an issue with something I have done or said, please come to me directly as soon as possible to avoid any misunderstanding.”
- “If I hear feedback from others that doesn’t reflect what you and I discussed, I will bring it immediately to your attention for us to discuss and address.”
Periodically check in to review progress and discuss further areas of opportunity.
If we don’t check in with each other about our progress, we can easily revert to old assumptions and patterns of behavior.
Remaining authentic yet flexible
Finally, in striving to be our best authentic selves in our work, we sometimes confuse being authentic with being inflexible. In reality, high-performing leadership demands both: authenticity AND flexibility to meet the needs of others on your team.
Ensure you are authentically who you are, connected to your core values, presenting your best self. At the same time, look for ways to modify your approach if others are misinterpreting your intentions or you are misinterpreting theirs.
Remember, two people who passionately share the same goals and values can have divergent opinions about the best way to serve those goals.
Cheryl Foss has over 20 years of Leadership Development, Team Development, Strategy Development, Organization Design, and Change Management experience.
Robert (Bob) Porter is an accomplished organizational leader with over 30 years’ experience in health system leadership.