How to Handle Difficult Conversations Like Great Leaders Do!

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Most people avoid difficult conversations because they are painful, awkward, and well, difficult. That’s most people. Leaders, managers, and employees who are successful at work have to learn how not to avoid difficult conversations.

Say for instance, you’re a leader and you have to give someone negative feedback about his poor performance on the job. Or look at it from the other side, say you’re an employee, and you need to give your manager criticism about her “soft skills”.

There are a couple of ways to handle these difficult conversations.

You can

  1. focus on the past, give the historical facts to this person of their problems, challenges, and/or issues. Be careful, if poorly delivered feedback can make people very defensive and angry; or you can
  2. focus on the future, provide suggestions and solutions for the future, and possibly inspire the person to make constructive changes that will help her, the team, and the organization. The challenge here is that without knowing a bit about the past, there is no context for the feedforward.

The greatest leaders I know employ both feedback and feedforward. This is truly the key to successfully handling difficult conversations of this type.

Feedback is often necessary. While it can be negative, if delivered well, it is very helpful in setting the stage for why change is needed. (The worst leaders I know only give feedback and they often don’t do it well.) Feedforward, on the other hand, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions rather than problems.

Feedforward is not the miracle cure. As historians tell us if we can learn the lessons of the past, we will be able to avoid making mistakes in the future. We cannot ignore the past just because we are uncomfortable or unskilled in providing feedback. If we provide feedforward without context, it will not have meaning and it will be without impact. The person receiving the feedforward may say “I don’t understand why you are making this suggestion. What relevance does it have to me?” We need to understand and be connected with the past to provide context and then make suggestions for the future.

When providing feedforward, I always suggest that the person frame the feedforward something like this: “Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given. If you can only use two of the ideas, you are still two ahead. Just ignore what doesn’t make sense for you.” This is a forward-looking, positive, non-judgmental statement typical of feedforward.

In August, I am hosting a free webinar series for the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches applicants! You will learn more about feedback and feedforward, and other topics from my books, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Triggers. All are welcome to join!

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How to Get Incredibly Helpful Feedback from Just About Anyone!

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Feedback is very useful for telling us “where we are.” Without it, I couldn’t work with my clients. I wouldn’t know what the people around my client think about what he or she needs to change. Likewise, without feedback, we wouldn’t know if were getting better or worse. We all need feedback to see where we are, where we need to go, and to measure our progress along the way. And I have a foolproof method for securing it.

When I work with coaching clients, I always get confidential feedback from their coworkers at the beginning of the process. I enlist each person to help me out. I want them to assist, not sabotage, the change process. I do this by saying to them, “I’m going to be working with my client for the next year. I don’t get paid if she doesn’t get better. Better is not defined by me; it is not defined by her. It is defined by you and the other coworkers involved in the process.” I then present them with four requests. I ask them to commit to:

  1. Let go of the past.
  2. Tell the truth.
  3. Be supportive and helpful–not cynical or negative.
  4. Pick something to improve themselves, so everyone is focused on more “improving” than “judging.”

As you contemplate changing your behavior yourself, you will need to do this same thing with your colleagues. Pick about a dozen people with whom you’ve had professional contact–work friends, peers, colleagues–and ask them to agree to these four commitments. When they do, which they nearly always will, you are ready to begin soliciting feedback from them about yourself.

In my experience, there are a hundred wrong ways to ask for feedback and one right way. Most of us know the wrong ways. We ask people, “What do you think of me?” “How do you feel about me?” “What do you hate about me?” or “What do you like about me?” Think about your colleagues. How many of them are your friends? How many of them really want to express to you their “true” feelings about you, to you?

A better question (and in my opinion the only question that works) is, “How can I do better?” Variations based on circumstances are okay, such as “What can I do to be a better partner at home?” or “What can I do to be a better leader of the group?” You get the idea. Pure issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to a) solicit advice rather than criticism, b) be directed towards the future, and c) be couched in a way that suggests you are, in fact, going to try to do better.

Finally, when you get the answer, when someone gives you the gift of what you can do to be better, don’t respond with your opinion of their advice. It will just sound like denial, rationalization, and objection. Treat every piece of advice as a gift, a compliment, and simply say, “Thank you.” No one expects you to act on every piece of advice. Just act on advice that makes sense to you. The people around you will be thrilled!

Now I want to hear from you!

Do you solicit feedback? How do you go about it? What holds you back from asking for feedback? What holds you back from giving feedback? We all need honest, helpful, constructive feedback. It’s hard to find, so I’m counting on you to give me your ideas, reflections, and experiences with feedback. I look forward to hearing from you!

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3 Tips for Leaders Who Engage on Social Media

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Some relationships are permanent; examples can include our families, life partners, close friends, and professional colleagues. These are lifelong bonds we form with some people.

Other relationships are transient. Transient relationships with friends, acquaintances, coworkers and colleagues can be highly enriching or quickly forgotten and last for a few days or a few years, either way, they are temporary.

Today we have a new type of relationship – the virtual relationship. This type of relationships is quite new, relatively speaking. In virtual “relationships”, we form connections (note that they’re called “followers” or “friends” or, literally, “connections”) with electronic representations of people. We may see their photos and be able to read their words, but we don’t interact in the classic sense. For the most part, there is no body language, inflection, intonation, volume, pitch, nonverbal behavior, or gesticulation.

Social media does a lot of good in connecting people, empowering movements, and boosting worthy causes. But it presents challenges, too. We can see and experience language and reactions on social media that would never occur in person, such as trolls who attack others for no reason, gratuitous use of obscenity, polarizing opinions, name calling, and so forth. A flat medium permits that. Such behavior, if manifested in a face-to-face, public setting would be considered gross and coarse. People make political, sexual, and religious comments on social media that they would never utter in the actual presence of other people.

Consequently, as a leader, our third dimension of relationships—virtual—requires you to be very thoughtful when engaging for these three reasons:

  1. Nothing published on any social media platform, no matter how restrictive you are in setting your connection permissions, is ever private or actually restricted to that platform. There is a good chance that others will learn of your private views and no matter how wonderful they are, this can lead to trouble.
  2. There are attack dogs on social media platforms who are always on the prowl spoiling for a fight. Many of them are bullies with vast inferiority complexes (the hallmark of bullies) who are seeking to bring everyone down to their own levels of poor self-worth. Such fights can be enervating. You may want to cull your virtual connections for this reason.
  3. Social media platforms can turn into vast vanity publishing operations, allowing anyone to say almost anything. And what is said becomes indelible. We all leave a trail. It’s hard to erase things that have been posted in the past unless you delete your account entirely, which still isn’t foolproof. What you’ve published two years ago can return to haunt you next year.

Relationships, whether they are permanent, transient, or virtual, fuel your journey. Some are constant sources of power, some are present for certain intervals and provide guidance and help, and some should be avoided, ended, or minimized because they represent unwanted detours, excess weight, or distraction. With those distinctions in mind, it’s important to focus on relationships that help you sustain your journey, whether they be permanent or temporary or virtual.

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You’re a Leader – What Should You Tweet?

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Social media has given us an incredible tool with which to reach millions and millions of people across the globe. With 7.5 billion people and counting and almost 2 billion on Facebook alone, as a leader, it is more important than ever to be thoughtful about what you post, tweet, and share.

So, how do you know what to “tweet”?

In the video interview that accompanies this blog, Todd Lombardo, digital marketer at Hastings Digital, recommends contemplating two questions when deciding what to share. These two questions are:

  1. What do you have to say? And,
  2. Do you offer value to the audience?

In my case, the first question, “What do I have to say?” has a simple answer. Everything I share on YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter is focused on my mission: helping successful leaders achieve positive lasting change in behavior, for themselves, their people, and their teams. I am the world’s expert on this one distinct thing. In fact, if you do a Google search for “helping successful leaders” (make sure you do this in quotes!), 450 of the first 500 hits are about me. I am not an expert on anything else, nor do I try to be. I have a very clear mission – Peter Drucker taught me the importance of this. He said, “Your mission should fit on a T-shirt.” This is so that it’s clear and easy to remember.

To the second question, “Does what I am sharing offer value to the audience?” Always, before sharing on social media I ask myself, “Will this help successful leaders achieve positive lasting change in behavior?” Does this content reinforce my positive mission? If the answer is yes, I share it; if it’s no, I edit, rewrite, or scrap the piece all together.

While my mission hasn’t changed in decades, where I find my audience has. In the past, I did three things: I’m an executive coach, a speaker or teacher, and an author.

Executive coaching has a very deep impact, however, I can reach only a tiny number of people. Realistically I can coach 10 -15 people at one time. With speaking and giving talks, I can reach far more people. It is of course limited to the size of the room. It is a different level of depth than coaching. It’s not as deep, and it is broader in reach. Broader still is the third thing I do, which is write and edit books and articles. This was how I reached most of my audience for many years. You may not know this, but more than 2 million people have read my books! With the Digital Age, I have added a fourth dimension – digital content creator. With online content, I can reach millions of people. The impact is not as deep, and yet for many people it makes a positive impact.

What hasn’t changed across any of these dimensions is my mission. I continue to “help successful leaders achieve positive lasting change in behavior, for themselves, their people, and their teams” in all of these areas.

What are your thoughts about social media? How do you choose what to share, post, and tweet? I’d love to hear your views!

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