Avoid the Truth

Why do leaders avoid the truth?

Most organizations will say they invest in their people, and that may be true. They pay for training, they offer benefits.

But paradoxically, how often do we as leaders avoid difficult conversations with poor performers until a “last straw” moment and we fire them? (Oops, so much for the investment in professional development!)

Sure, there are times when folks are not a fit for an organization. However, if someone isn’t growing into a role, has failed to demonstrate initiative and innovation, or perhaps exhibits some challenging behaviours, why do we avoid telling them?

Many of us are hard-wired to avoid conflict. It feels uncomfortable and awkward to tell someone they’re not doing well. We fear a bad reaction or a worsening of the situation (when you dread approaching someone, remember you can turn difficult conversations into essential conversations).

I’m a fan of open-ended questions and so I used to ask coaching clients, in this situation, “how did the employee react when you raised this with them?” But all too often I got a non-committal response or an honest, “well, I didn’t actually speak to them.” My, “why not?” was usually met with, “well, it should be obvious to them that I’m not happy.” Or, “I think I’ve made it clear without actually having to have a conversation about it.”

Here are a few of the reasons why it is crucial that we stop doing this:

There should be no surprise endings

No one should ever be shocked to be fired, but we’ve likely all witnessed times that someone was blindsided (or perhaps even experienced it personally).

As leaders, we ideally use performance conversations to examine the good, the bad, and (you guessed it!) the ugly. Having those frank and open discussions with your team members can be very uncomfortable, but they’re valuable and necessary. But it’s easier to be liked and to avoid confrontation or discomfort. Our workday is stressful enough without adding these difficult conversations to the mix. Right?

The problem is that if someone is being given a message between the lines, and they’re told they are doing, “okay” or “could” improve, they may pick up on your message. Some folks, on the other hand, would hear that as “you’re doing just fine.”

If someone is walking that thin line, they need to know it unequivocally. This is not a time to gloss over things or hope they’re reading between the lines! You may even need to adapt your communication style to avoid communication breakdown (so that the employee receives and understands your message in the same way you’re giving it!).

People may not appreciate hearing the truth in the moment, but knowing there are problems allows them to attempt to improve. It can be the catalyst for change, inspiring them to seek out mentors and earnestly pursue professional growth.

The fall-out is huge

If you fire someone when you’ve finally had it with them but haven’t had the difficult conversations with them previously it can be very demoralizing for the survivors left to keep things going.

Witnessing the firing of someone who had assumed all was well can destroy morale and trust in a workplace faster, and more completely, than almost anything else.

If there were relationships among team members and the terminated employee, they will feel terrible for their colleague who has been cut from the team. Losing someone they have built ties with can rattle the group dynamic as they process this unexpected turn of events.

Most importantly, when someone is fired without expecting it, folks start to wonder if they, too, are unaware of something they’re doing wrong or not well. They wonder if there is conflict you’re avoiding with them too. Even top performers start to wonder, “could I be next?” Not surprisingly, morale plummets and reactions will run from fear and anger to worry, anxiety, and stress. And you can guess, when that fear pervades a workplace, who will be the first to leave? The top performers.

The cost of re-training

There’s no question that dealing with a poor performer can be time consuming and exhausting, but remind yourself that hiring new staff can be worse! That doesn’t mean avoid firing people, rather what I’m trying to say is, be sure you’ve done everything else possible before letting them go.

When we don’t have the full-on truthful conversations we as leaders need to have, we are buying very short-term relief for long-term pain.

Is it possible that really trying to help a team member improve a poor performance could take less energy, time, and expense than finding and training a replacement? Even if the time and expense of guiding and coaching the poor performer, coaching them, correcting them, is the same as hiring someone new, it still avoids the fall-out of an unexpected firing and reinforces with others that you are committed to helping your staff succeed.

Don’t forget, too, the learning curve for any new hire has an impact on the efficiency of the entire team. Having to process the termination of one coworker (while possibly fearing their own job security could be tenuous!) while helping someone new learn the ropes can really slow things down.

Difficult conversations can reap benefits

One of the best reasons to have difficult feedback conversations is that they can bring out details that will help you understand how to better motivate or support the team member.

And sometimes, having a frank discussion might even help you reassign an employee to a role they’re more suited to. When this happens, the employee is happier and performs well and that has a ripple effect in the organization.

I know that having those tough conversations might be excruciating at first but like most things in life, they get easier with practice. And, one of the huge side benefits of getting better at them is that they up your value as a leader. Others, including your own boss, see you managing the tough situations, confronting the challenging conversations, and achieving great things even with poor performers. Becoming a role-model of leadership certainly won’t harm your own career, will it?

At Padraig, we call these conversations, “Essential Conversations” because they are just that. We’ve explored in detail how to have an Essential Conversation here.


Coach’s Questions:

Have you been that leader avoiding difficult (or essential) conversations? Can you think of training or mentoring success stories that have made a second chance worth it? Who on your team, right now, would benefit from you having an honest performance conversation with them? What could you gain by not avoiding the truth?