What happens when you avoid a difficult conversation?

Men discussing

The short answer is that when leaders avoid a difficult conversation, organizations suffer.

When I’m brought in to help with conflict in the workplace, all too often I see that problems have arisen because of a reluctance to have a difficult conversation. Here are just a few examples:

  • A manager accepts an employee’s poor performance, rather than setting clear expectations. The extra workload is taken up by her teammates, who start to resent her and wonder why she is being protected.
  • A staff member is regularly, but not spectacularly, disrespectful to others. He rolls his eyes at his co-workers’ suggestions, sometimes doesn’t return friendly greetings, and talks down to others in meetings. No one calls him on it, and the behaviour comes to be accepted as “just the way he is.” People start to avoid him when they can, fearing the next disrespectful interaction. The tension and the feeling of having to “walk on eggshells” contributes to low morale.
  • A customer makes demands that go beyond an agreed scope of work. Rather than explain to the customer that these requests will incur extra cost, the manager pushes her team harder instead. The team comes through. But the stress of meeting the increased demands causes the team’s top performer to start putting her resume around, and another to take a stress leave.

I understand why people avoid difficult conversations. (I’ve been known to avoid them – or put them off – myself.) And there is some wisdom to that old saying about knowing how to pick your battles.

Difficult conversations seem easy to avoid because the consequences of avoiding them are not usually immediate. It takes time for a situation to deteriorate. Yet the longer a difficult conversation is put off, the harder it is to address the underlying issues.

Employees today have more options than ever, and top performers have the most options. Having a workplace where employees are engaged and can do their best means addressing issues as they arise. And that means having the courage to start a difficult conversation.

About the image: Men in conversation by Helgi Halldórsson via Wikimedia Commons.