Uncomfortable but Necessary: The Role of Difficult Conversations in Building Performance and Culture

Last modified 06 March 2024
AIB Events, Leadership, Organisations & Culture
Uncomfortable but Necessary: The Role of Difficult Conversations in Building Performance and Culture

For those of us who’ve experienced personal growth, we recognise the discomfort when entering the learning zone, expanding our minds, acquiring new skills, and evolving our understanding. Pushing through leads to transformation, propelling us in our careers. But what about organisational growth? It introduces another factor: people.

We undergo a similar process to grow as a unified organisation pursuing a shared vision. Working together, we bring diverse perspectives as we work towards a common goal, inevitably leading to challenging conversations. Despite the discomfort, these discussions are vital for organisational growth and culture.

On Thursday, the 14th of September, Helen Williams, AIB MBA graduate and CEO of Inclusion Melbourne, shared the importance of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable at our Melbourne networking event. The following article shares the key takeaways from Helen’s discussion ‘Uncomfortable but Necessary: The Role of Difficult Conversations in Building Performance and Culture’.

About Helen Williams:

With a passion for making a positive impact in the world, navigating across business, non-profit and academia sectors – Helen’s presentation drew upon her extensive 25-year career in the industry, including her leadership roles at prominent organisations like Inclusion Melbourne, Jobsbank, Swinburne, LaTrobe and World Vision AU. Helen pursued her MBA at AIB, specialising in entrepreneurial management, followed by advanced courses in leadership and social impact, which solidified her expertise and commitment to driving meaningful change.

Helen began the night by reflecting on her experience as an MBA student sharing that the course allowed her to intrinsically and practically look at situations that influenced the workplace culture.

“When I first reached the executive level, I realised it was tougher than expected. It wasn’t going to be all about the numbers. I could read a P&L and write a strategic plan, the key to success was about practising the soft skills to be successful as a leader.”

Helen explained that these challenges don’t go away even now as a leader with of executive experience and brought us to the focus of her discussion–effectively giving and receiving feedback. She asked the audience if they had ever experienced difficult conversations and felt uncomfortable. Almost every hand in the room went up.

“Whether you’re developing a department or broadly leading an organisation, you will need to be ready to sit with some level of discomfort. My goal tonight is to share a few points with you that are practical and can help you with difficult conversations, that you will face as a leader in your workplace.”

The Interplay of Performance and Culture

Helen described the interplay of performance and culture, like the roots of a tree nourishing the branches and leaves.

“A positive culture is a powerful driver for enhanced performance. It can inspire employee engagement and commitment to work, increasing productivity and efficiency.

When you have and encourage open communication and collaboration, it leads to better problem-solving and innovation. However, the problem is that building and maintaining a high-performance culture is no easy feat.

With the fast-paced nature of modern business and now growing hybrid working environments, it can be challenging to balance your business goals whilst sustaining a happy workplace and a consistent culture. This is where you need to be able to flex your empathy muscle.”

Types of Difficult Conversations

Helen took us through the difficult conversations that we can be prepared to expect as leaders:

  • Performance: One of the first we can generally expect is around performance; when an employee falls short of expectations, or there’s negative behaviour that needs to be dealt with that’s misaligned with the code of conduct and the organisation’s values.
  • Conflicts and disagreements: These might involve mediating disputes, uncovering the root causes, or facilitating resolution strategies that allow everyone to move forward constructively.
  • Cultural challenges: Diverse workplaces bring cultural differences, which can lead to misunderstandings, biases, or even discrimination. This requires open discussions on bias, awareness, and addressing any microaggressions.
  • Organisational change: Changes in their workplace, such as restructuring and redundancies, are difficult conversations because you’re impacting people’s job security.  You need to approach them with empathy and transparency and ease emotional stress. But a warning – they also impact those left, they are their friends, their colleagues, and it affects morale and culture.
  • Personal Issues: These can include health challenges, family problems, or mental health concerns. It is important in these situations to be compassionate and consider potential accommodations and support mechanisms to support those affected.

Helen explained that a key aspect she empowers her senior management with, is to be comfortable with dealing with these.

“As a leader, it’s important that you empower your managers to be comfortable with a clean escalation process. Establishing this within your workplace allows minor conflicts to remain small, enabling individuals to resolve them respectfully and independently without constantly involving HR.

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable

Although uncomfortable, Helen stresses it is necessary not to avoid these conversations.

“While none of us wishes for them, addressing these issues is crucial because neglecting them can worsen performance, damage relationships, and foster a toxic workplace. So, approach them with empathy, active listening, and clarity. Avoiding difficult conversations can also negatively affect the employees and the organisation itself.”

Helen explained that by sidestepping or postponing these conversations, several detrimental effects are at risk of occurring, including:

  • decreased productivity
  • increased stress and anxiety
  • reduced job satisfaction
  • conflict escalation
  • missed opportunities

Helen then drew our attention to a survey by Gallup which found that only 15% of employees are engaged at work worldwide.

“Unsolved issues and the lack of open communication were cited as the contributing factors to that disengagement. Difficult conversations are a great tool for shaping and reinforcing culture because they allow leaders to address behaviours, attitudes, and practices, particularly those that don’t align or conflict with the organisation’s code of conduct.”

Don’t forget the Code of Conduct:

As an audience, we were then asked: Who uses their company’s code of conduct or even read it when you signed your employment contract? This time, very few hands went up.

“Codes of conduct are not meant to be left just with the employment contract. They are helpful tools to assist with these conversations and can help you positively make organisations’ cultural values, tangible and relatable. But they also can provide you with a key tool to benchmark and address any behaviours or actions that are misaligning with the organisation and to have that candid conversation.”

Effective Feedback – The keys to success

Helen explained that effective feedback is the heart of productive and constructive difficult conversations.

“When you’re giving or receiving feedback, navigate them with empathy and clarity all the time. For employees to have a good relationship with their boss, it’s important to solicit feedback regularly, with a balance of both praise and areas for improvement.

Regular and consistent feedback:

As a leader, Helen explained that feedback needs to be regular, just in short pieces, which can be one to three minutes.

“This will prepare you and staff for when you need to have serious and challenging conversations, as people will be accustomed to engaging with you, trusting your intentions, feeling safe, and knowing you have their best interests at heart.”

Receiving feedback:

Helen discussed how receiving feedback can be viewed both in and after the moment.

“In the moment when you’re receiving feedback, remain open-minded, ask clarifying questions and regardless of the feedback content, acknowledge the person who’s taking the time to give the feedback”.

After the moment, Helen stressed that we take the time to breathe and should reflect on these three questions:

  • Does the person who gave me the feedback have my best interest at heart?
  • Is there any truth in what they shared? Is that why I’m angry or I’m emotional?
  • And if so, what actions am I going to take? And what changes am I going to make?

She explained that she uses these three questions to coach her leaders and her leadership team to develop their staff.

“My team uses these three questions to reflect on regular feedback, and I found it’s helped build trust and culture, a culture of care in my organisation.”

Timing is Everything

At this point, Helen highlighted the importance of timing when having these pivotal discussions:

“One thing you do need to remember when you’re giving feedback or having difficult conversations is that the desire for efficiency is often the regret in these feedback conversations because people get frustrated when you rush things.

Allowing integration time is crucial for the person receiving the feedback. Ensure you create the time and space for them to reflect, engage in a conversation, and ask questions. This pause is essential for gaining a deeper understanding of their perspective and customising how they can apply the feedback to improve their work. Be prepared and allocate the appropriate time and space for this process.”

Final Strategies & Tips:

  1. Set clear objectives.
  2. Choose the right time and space
  3. Always use ‘I’ statements
  4. If you’re new to this, try the Feeback Sandwich Model:
    • Start with positive feedback for an observation relating to the actual situation you’re going to address.
    • Interchange ‘but’ with ‘and’ and then provide some constructive feedback in the middle – as soon as you say but, you negate all the positive you have said.
    • End with positive reinforcement for how you will work together and your commitment to supporting their improvement in the discussed area
    1. Alternatively, you can try an ‘open sandwich’ if you want to go quickly, you can just look at two parts. Something that worked well and something that was a challenge. Some of you may use that to end your meetings or projects.
    2. Finally, follow-up and support: Particularly if people want to get out of the conversation quickly, this is overlooked. It’s crucial to outline the next steps and discuss how the individual will apply the discussed insights. This is vital because it helps confirm their comprehension and application of the conversation’s content.

    Helen then shared a quote she loves that relates to this point:

    “The biggest mistake in communication is believing that it has happened.” – George Bernard Shaw


    A final thought from Helen:

    “Incorporating these tips and strategies into your approach for difficult conversations will transform them from confrontations to opportunities for growth and improvement. Think about as a leader how you can shape your agendas, conduct feedback processes, and have these difficult conversations to create conditions for all your staff to thrive, not just the outspoken ones.

    Don’t forget when you’re having these difficult conversations and giving feedback. It’s the quiet ones that really aren’t usually included in those conversations. Active listening, empathy, and clarity and communication, are the cornerstones for productive feedback exchanges and having difficult conversations.”

    *The Australian Institute of Business (AIB) is Australia’s largest provider of MBAs. Source Ready, B. (2023) Domestic Enrolments Surged During COVID After International Students Locked Out, MBA News. Available at: MBA News.

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