As a leadership coach, I often work with clients who overlook their primary purpose at work — to drive business value — and become trapped in their emotions. The cause of this common phenomenon is typically a healthy resistance to conflict that’s outlived its purpose or the existence of blind spots behind which the more productive approach is hidden. What these clients have difficulty seeing is that their success at work requires behaviors aligned with their organization’s goals.
Unfortunately, all too often, thoughts and emotions distract us from that primary purpose. And when they do, we lose track of the very reason we were hired: to drive business value.
Instead of framing interpersonal tensions as a part of the journey to advancing the business, we personalize them. When this happens, resolving interpersonal conflicts becomes considerably more difficult. When, however, we take a step back and explore tensions as a normal, organic part of reaching a business goal, we find interpersonal conflicts no longer block our collective progress and represent an inherent part of creating business value.
Which brings me to the most common behavior that hinders my clients’ performance in the workplace: the avoidance of difficult conversations. This avoidance of difficult conversations definitely hinders an organization’s progress.
- The avoiding party feels a loss of control, creating unnecessary stress and feelings of anger, apathy and demotivation.
- The organization loses rich input that supports the business goal and the growth of the organization.
How Phil Overcame His Avoidance of Hard Conversations
Phil leads a large, talented team of developers in a cloud-based technology services company. Brought on to transform the group into a more agile and transparent team, Phil has faced consistent resistance. This resistance to change has placed Phil in an uncomfortable position: his boss, the CEO, is constantly asking him for precise timelines for completing software updates while his team is unwilling to break the projects into discrete deliverables and commit to timelines and completion dates.
When I first started coaching Phil, he expressed frustration over the situation. He understood that change is hard for his team and empathized, but he also recognized that he had signed up to lead the transformation of the development team. The problem was that he was hesitant to engage in an authentic, reality-based conversation with his team or his boss. Through our coaching sessions, Phil came to understand that avoiding hard conversation created more significant risks than having them and that his behavior denied the business of his valuable perspective.
Once he became aware of this, he mobilized for change in his behaviors vis-a-vis “interpersonal conflict.” He came to understand that conflict was essential for any well run organization, and that without it, the business could not advance in an optimal, reality-based manner. He began to see “conflict” as an essential part of creating business value and moving the business forward. He was ready for behavioral change and we co-created an action plan that included hard conversations with his team and his boss. With his plan’s success, Phil felt relieved, understood the value of the conversations and was ready to engage in future difficult conversations.
How Jennifer Overcame Her Discomfort With “Conflict” and Confronted Her Peers
Jennifer is responsible for product management at a mid-size marketing technology company. As a client, I quickly understood her extraordinary qualities as a product manager and her frustrations vis-a-vis other functional areas such as Sales that impacted her ability to perform her job. In her view, client-facing people were frequently negligent about collecting detailed requirements. Moreover, they often promised functionality that hamstrung Jennifer’s and her team’s time allocation. This made her feel out-of-control, magnifying her stress in a job that was already stretching her capacity.
Typically, she would ask for clarification of requirements and Sales would push back or ignore her requests for better information. This made her angry and frustrated. When we explored why she was so frustrated and angry, she expressed both a feeling of losing control and a low tolerance for Sale’s “incompetence.” We then explored how this affected the business, and not just her personally.Through a series of probing questions, she became more aware that the unresolved tension between her and Sales was an impediment to advancing the business. By framing her interpersonal conflicts as a business problem, and less as personal slight or an uncomfortable conflict, she was able to consider new behaviors: instead of acting out her frustration and anger, she would view and explore it as a business problem that required a solution.
This meant confronting Sales and framing the “conflict” as a business issue and opportunity that needed to be resolved for the company. As part of the plan, Jennifer came to understand the importance of taking an appreciative stance from the beginning and sharing how difficult these situations were for her. Her plan to resolve the issue was anchored by three elements:
1) A sharing of her compassion, with herself and Sales.
2) A framing of the issue as a problem that hurt the business.
3) A willingness to view the confrontation or even conflict as a natural and positive part of creating business value.
How Tom Re-discovered Control Through Hard Conversations
Tom leads the customer success team at a services company. In this role, he collaborates across all functional areas of the business as an advocate for clients. Often, he finds himself in conflict with his internal partners when they are unwilling to address client problems (or sometimes even listen). Tom is very uncomfortable with conflict and therefore rarely confronts his colleagues. He perceives personal risk and never considered framing the conflict as a threat to the business. Often, this avoidance behavior leads him to go directly to individuals with power, which frustrates his peers. Through leadership coaching sessions, Tom began to understand that avoiding hard conversations was more risky than skillfully engaging in difficult conversations that drive real business value. With a greater awareness of his resistance and the importance of overcoming it, Tom mobilized to make real changes to his behavior, and harnessed the new found courage to confront his colleagues, framing the issue as a business issue, not as personal issue.
Embracing the Value of Difficult Conversations
In all of these cases, my clients realized that their healthy resistance to hard conversations was no longer serving them well. With a willingness to engage in hard conversations, they all created a plan anchored in a reframing of the problem. The problem was no longer framed a personal, but rather as an opportunity to advance the business.
One-on-one leadership coaching is a highly effective method for supporting executive change. And when these changes are made, the executive is more productive, more motivated and happier. And of course, all of this aligns well with the growth of the company. Mach10 Career & Leadership coaching offers coaching to individuals directly and through organizations.
Please reach out to me, David Ehrenthal (firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-529-875) if you’d like to explore our coaching services.