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?


8 Ways to Get Motivated at Work

Some days it’s easy to be enthusiastic and excited about work, while other days it’s a struggle to stay focused, overcome writer’s block, or just find some joy as you juggle myriad demands.

There are different reasons for feeling unmotivated. Maybe you feel you aren’t challenged enough and boredom certainly snuffs out motivation. Some may be distracted or lack focus, while others are so overwhelmed with work or personal demands that it can feel impossible to find joy, let alone enthusiasm for the daily grind.

So what do you do when your get up and go has got up and left?

Here are eight ideas to help you get motivated about work:

1.Set up a to-do list and prioritize it. I know, it sounds simple! But rather than merely listing every task you need to complete, determine what is urgent versus what’s important. Too often we live in a constant state of urgency and it is easy to waste time on things that are actually not important or on urgent things that eclipse what is actually important in the grander scheme of things. Additionally, if you focus on the important things, you may even prevent them from becoming urgent. This is important because you can keep your focus on the big picture priorities that are full of purpose and meaning (and you won’t feel exhausted always dealing with urgent problems!

2. Ask for feedback. Seek the advice of your boss, coworkers, or other team members — and be specific (What am I doing well? What would you like to see change? Where would you like to see me grow?). When you know what is appreciated and where you can improve, you have some concrete information to help you determine what you should keep doing — and, more importantly, what you can do better.

3. Focus on what you control. We can only control what we do ourselves; we can’t control others. Carrying frustrations with other people is often a burden on our motivation. By keeping your focus on what you can do and what you have control over, you may feel less discouraged and able to accomplish what you need to do.

4. Reflect on your WHY. Knowing what you do and how to do it is helpful, but knowing your WHY helps you align yourself with purpose. This, in turn, can propel you to meet your goals and even inspire and motivate the people around you!

5. Build relationships with your colleagues. One of the programs we run is called The Five Behaviours of a Cohesive Team and it is tremendously successful helping leadership teams become more effective. Not coincidentally, one thing that often shows up in their action plans is to “spend more time together” — not more time in meetings or strategizing, but just getting to know each other. It almost seems too basic or simplistic, doesn’t it? But through agreeing to grab a weekly coffee together, eating lunch together regularly, or going out after work for a quick visit every couple of weeks, the results are amazing. They always report phenomenal growth in trust and understanding — and thus motivation — when they make relationship building a priority.

6. Practise mindfulness. It may sound like a buzzword or some fad, but mindfulness truly builds self-awareness about what’s going on around you and how you react to it. It takes practice, but when you switch from mind FULL to mindful you’ll quickly notice it is easier to get motivated at work so you can manage your day and achieve success.

7. Keep a journal. Some folks find it easy to get into a groove of journaling daily; see if you can, too. Picking a dedicated time to journal — like the start or the end of your day — often works best. I’ll admit that I find this one hard to do, but when I’m actively engaged with journaling, the results skew toward amazing. I find I’m focused and I’m motivated. Hell, sometimes I’m charged up!

8. Actively seek growth. When was the last time you learned a completely new skill? Perhaps it’s time to take a course or upgrade some qualifications (and maybe your company will see this as an investment and pay for the training!). It may be personal growth that you need and booking yourself vacation time or enjoying time away from the office (no cell phone or email after hours!) might be exactly what you need to rejuvenate. Or it might be time to ask your boss for work that is a little bit more challenging. After all, a new opportunity can be very interesting, and there are times a lateral career move can be good for your career. Change can be daunting, but it can also be very exciting!

Feeling unmotivated every now and again is entirely normal, but it’s also temporary. If you try some of these strategies to get motivated at work, you’ll find ways to rediscover your purpose and rekindle your motivation.

Coach’s Questions:

When do you feel unmotivated? What dampens your enthusiasm professionally? Which strategies do you think would help you get motivated at work?


How good leaders handle criticism

You can’t please everyone is a truism that is particularly important to leaders.  

Leading others in an organization practically by definition means having to make decisions where there is no obvious easy choice. Realistically, there is no choice that will make everyone happy.  

Part of the responsibility that comes with the benefits of being “the boss” is having to make those tough calls and being able to weather the fallout. Some team members will simmer quietly, expressing their upset and discontent behind closed doors and out of your earshot. Others may be much louder, even challenging you and your discussions.

Facing criticism or discontent can be challenging. As Norman Vincent Peale (the late author of The Power of Positive Thinking) said, “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

I once worked for a boss who really liked to be liked.  

This boss was the kind of leader who really wanted to keep people happy with his decisions. It was terrible!

You see, we had a huge project with a lot riding on it and many different points of view. No matter what he did, someone criticized the decision. The more that happened, the fewer decisions he would make.

What if leaders are strategic about who they try to please?

Of course, there are some leaders who always base their decisions on who needs to be happy. They make a decision so a key client won’t criticize them, or so the union won’t, or so a board member won’t. Unfortunately, this means they’re not really making the tough decisions: the client is, or the union is, or the board member is — and often those folks don’t have the full picture that the leader has..  

By seeking to avoid criticism, they are abdicating their authority – and the responsibility – of making the right decisions on behalf of the organization.

How do good leaders make decisions?

Good leaders listen to the opinions of those other stakeholders. They consider multiple points of view, review facts and important information related to the issue, and then they implement the decision they believe will most benefit the organization.

And you see, this is the first key to handling criticism: If your focus is on making the right decision for the organization (not on making yourself look good, or making yourself popular), then it’s easier to confront the criticism head-on, and to debate the merits, without taking it personally.  

The more you try to please others, the more you’re making it personal – and the more you make it personal, the more the criticism interferes with your ability to lead. That’s a vicious circle that results in an indecisive leader who soon gets type-cast.

Once other team members recognize a leader can’t make a decision, you can bet there will be some who go around that leader.

So how do we deal with criticism and remain a rock solid leader?

First, don’t take it personally. That sounds a lot easier than it is, in practice, for many people. The key is to remind yourself, constantly, who or what you’re making the decision for. It should be the good of the organization and its business (products, services, clients, etcetera). Literally reminding yourself of this (silently repeating to yourself, “what is the right decision for the organization?” or something similar) will not only help you make your best decisions, it starts to remove the sting of criticism when you hear it.

Second, don’t react. At least, not immediately! Closely tied into the problem of taking criticism personally is leaders who get defensive quickly. Because they take what critics say personally, they react badly. If they took a minute to review the situation, evaluate the validity of the criticism, and consider how it relates to the big picture they might see it as accurate. The reality is that most criticism will have some truth to it (for example, this decision did affect that department badly…even though it was necessary for the larger organization, or it wasn’t the route that board member would have liked..even though it addressed the falling share price).

Evaluating criticism against the big picture – and how the decision did address the problem or opportunity for the good of the organization – will help you stay grounded in determining whether it was, indeed, a good decision. Note I didn’t say “the best decision,” or “the right decision.” That’s because sometimes there are multiple bad choices, and you have to pick one. Or there are times when there are a number of good choices, but for very different reasons – and you have to pick one.  Making a good decision (even if it turns out it’s not the very best decision!) is often better than missing the opportunity to make any decision at all.

Third, consider whether the criticism is an opportunity to learn. Perhaps you weren’t aware of something, or it’s entirely possible that you miscalculated or moved too quickly. None of us are perfect! Our decisions will not always be good ones – and considering the criticism helps us learn for the next situation, the next decision.  

Great leaders are great listeners – and criticism is an opportunity to listen. Remember, listening doesn’t mean you have to do anything other than genuinely listen and consider what is being said.  

I want you to remember one of the mantras we at Padraig constantly share (courtesy of author Stephen R. Covey): Most people don’t listen with the intention to understand, they listen with the intention to respond.  

Use criticism as an opportunity to listen to understand (it takes practice when you’re used to listening with the intent to reply!), and then decide whether it’s worth learning from. Sure, you’ll begin to learn that some folks are out to criticize you for all the wrong reasons, but some criticism will have merit and it might be constructive. When those around you have valid concerns and worthy feedback, hearing them and understanding them will make you stronger as a leader and will help them see themselves as helping you

The Coach’s Questions:

What criteria have you valued most when making tough decisions? When those decisions were criticized, how did you feel? How did you respond? What decisions are facing you now, and how will you manage them having read today’s blog?