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Make a smart move, find courage to address taboo topics

Sometimes an interaction ventures too close to a sensitive issue, eliciting an immediate "I don’t want to discuss it." The tension can easily be observed: fidgeting, abruptly changing the subject, deflecting through humor, tightness in the face, red blotches on the neck or "shutting down."
 
This is tricky territory for a leader. When is it invasive to pursue an uncomfortable topic, and when might that discussion be appropriate, or even life-saving?

Automatically choosing comfort
Leaders commonly tell me that they back away from delicate topics, defaulting to their own comfort levels. One of the biggest triggers for a leader’s discomfort is the detection of discomfort in another.
 
Several years ago, during a coaching session with Jerry, the heavy-set leader of a professional firm, he said, "I would do anything for my two young daughters."
 
I asked, "How far would you take your ‘I would do anything’ claim? Let’s say it occurred to you that losing weight would be the best thing you could do for your daughters. Would you do it?"
 
Was that an invasive question, or was I practicing strategic courage?
 
One year later, I ran into a slimmer Jerry in a hardware store. He said, "Remember when you asked me if I would lose weight to serve the best interests of my daughters? Thank you for that. It was a turning point for me."
 
I’m not saying every uncomfortable topic should be put on the table. Sometimes, asking another person about weight loss would be crass and inappropriate.
 
What I am saying is that in determining how to respond to a sensitive issue, leaders should consider the best interests of the other-and of the organization-not just "the discomfort factor." As with Jerry, addressing emotionally taboo topics offers potential benefits despite the accompanying discomfort.

Easily avoided topics
Among the issues leaders tend to sidestep with their direct reports or peers, here are a few I have repeatedly observed:
 
Money tensions. Compensation discussions between partners, among family business owners and between employer and employees often raise anxiety in all parties. Whose contributions are more important to the business? How will each individual’s value be measured? Is a raise deserved? It’s not uncommon for such conversations to be continually put off, or for leaders to say things they later regret in an effort to avoid conflict. Strong leaders won’t let that happen.
 
Conflicts between co-workers. When managers or employees don’t get along, leaders can err in two directions: over-involvement or abdication. Over-involvement occurs when leaders take responsibility for the problem, promoting irresponsibility in the conflicting parties. In contrast, abdication is a form of burying one’s head in the sand. Smart leaders try to find the middle ground, staying involved from a healthy distance, challenging the bickering individuals to look at their own part in the drama, coaching each party to work at sensible connection.
 
Succession planning. Who will take over for me when I leave? What conversations must we have now to prepare for that transition? Leaders tend to avoid succession discussions because they are either not ready or afraid to move on. Potential successors also avoid bringing up the topic, worrying that they will be perceived as greedy or impatient. Sharp-minded leaders initiate open discussion about the future and invite successors to do the same. If leaders are not clear about their desired future or about how to prepare their successor, they involve an objective coach to help them get clear.
 
Unquestioned beliefs. Consider these statements: "I believe we should leave well enough alone." "I don’t believe in holding people accountable." "I believe that the customer is always right." Strongly asserted beliefs often go unquestioned, even though such statements might be unfounded-and perilous to the organization. Mindful leaders view it as part of their responsibility to explore any employee beliefs that affect the group. In turn, they invite and request that same level of curiosity and challenge about their own beliefs.
 
Physical appearance. The way individuals choose to look and dress stimulates strong personal reactions. Appearance represents a stamp of self-definition: "This is who I am." Challenging the propriety of another’s appearance should be carefully weighed against respect for individuality and variation. But that doesn’t justify avoiding conversations about inappropriate attire, tattoos, cleavage, heavy eye shadow, stained ties, short skirts and body piercings. If a leader won’t discuss these issues, who will?

Goal: Avoiding avoidance
Leaders should fight the natural tendency to duck sensitive topics. Why? Because refusing to address an important issue often inflicts more harm on an organization than the emotional discomfort of facing it.
 
Nerve-wracking anticipation of discussing an uncomfortable topic is usually more taxing than the discussion itself. Having a plan for avoiding avoidance can help.
 
Here’s something every leader can do regularly: Make a list of the issues you have been avoiding in key relationships at work and at home. Ask yourself, "Are the real consequences of not addressing this issue greater than the emotional discomfort of discussing it?" If the answer is yes, establish a plan to discuss the issue, taking into account the setting, tone and language that will maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome. Solicit outside help for rehearsing and feedback if you need it. Then have the discussion, and see what happens.
 
Leaders cannot afford to get stuck in a pattern of automatic avoidance. It’s not good for the leader. It’s not good for the follower. And it’s not good for the organization.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

6/3/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].

One comment

  1. This is SO important. This may be one of the most important skills to develop in order to be an effective leader both at work and in the rest of your life. Not avoiding the elphant in the room from early on prevents the elephant from growing so big that it controls you.
    An essential feature to developing the courageous muscle is learning how get get your own emotions and reactions into a neutral space so you can have these difficult conversations.This is a skill that can be built.
    If you are not ready for approaching the really tough issues on your own, ask a mediator/coach to help you plan and practice your approach. Or, a facilitator can keep the boat steady when you are in the rough seas of the conversation.

    Great article. Thanks for putting it out there.
    Karen Calcagno, The Hard Conversation Coach
    AdvantageFamilyBusinessCenter.com

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