Critical conversations – why do we regularly avoid them?

Critical conversations were the central topic of our latest Investors in People (IiP) Champion Series Event. Aimed primarily at CEOs and MDs, these events explore key aspects of leadership and management and are made possible by the generous help of IiP South and Grant Thornton.

As we quickly established, thinking about critical conversations as bruising, confrontational events is a mistake. They can just as easily be about delivering praise and recognition as criticism. After all, retaining your key talent is surely every bit as important to organisational success as helping under-performers to either improve or leave?

So why do leaders and managers avoid so many of these critical conversations? Using the Chiumento Culture Matrix we explored four major reasons why we think this happens.

If you are not familiar with our Culture Matrix, it works like this. Too often performance is thought of only in terms of outcomes – “the what”. Most bonus schemes and commission plans, for example, reflect that – ie sell more, earn more.

A quick look at the fate of sports stars who have fallen from grace (eg as a result of drug taking) tells us that we care about “how” outcomes are achieved too. If you want further evidence of how this two dimensional model works, think about your experiences of eating in restaurants. As any visit to TripAdvisor will confirm, we are often as influenced by the behaviours of the front of house team as the skill of the chef. So the “how’ is just as important as the “what” when we look at performance.

For the purpose of this event we divided the matrix into four quadrants as illustrated in this diagram:-

final quadrants

Top right is the Pond of Complacency (great outcomes, great behaviours). This is the part of the Matrix where your best performers will be found – yet we often give them far too little of our time. Why? Well, it is often in our experience the mistaken belief that best people know they are good and therefore don’t need telling.

That’s a huge mistake. Their need for recognition and praise is no less than any other person. Yet we repeatedly sacrifice time we should be spending coaching and motivating our “A Players” to firefight the damage caused by their less capable colleagues.

The Sea of Hope (poor outcomes, poor behaviours) talks to that part of us that refuses to give up on people. We carry on trying to “fix” them long after we should have given up. We allow ourselves to believe that if we (not they) try just a bit harder and a bit longer things will eventually turn around. Even though experience very often tells us that won’t happen.

In the process we lose the trust of other people in the team. Often it is co-workers who suffer most from poor performing colleagues. Having to bear more than their fair share of the workload or repairing damaged relationships. Fail to deal with poor performers and your credibility as a leader will quickly be brought into question.

The Ocean of Tolerance  (great outcomes, poor behaviours) is the one we hear about everywhere we go. And most of all from people in organisations that position themselves as values led yet who let poor behaviour go unaddressed.

Bad behaviour is tolerated for all sorts of reasons. The excuses for not tackling it we hear most often are:-

  • “The impact on sales would be too great…”
  • “Their skill set is so rare we’d never replace them…”
  • “They’re the only one who knows how to…”

Yet the damage caused by this bad behaviour is often toxic. To the point of undermining the ethics of Boards and negatively impacting engagement resulting in other people either leaving, or worse still, adopting an “if they can get away with it so can I” mindset.

The Lake of Compassion (poor outcomes, great behaviours) is where we too often allow ourselves to overlook failure as people are just so nice to work with. Often these can be very enthusiastic members of the team. They just aren’t competent.

Training can often play big dividends as things like skills and knowledge are easier to develop than changing behaviours. Yet how long do we tolerate enthusiastic incompetence? Putting off critical conversations as it is very hard to criticise someone who is so committed.

There are a huge range of other uses for our Culture Matrix. From establishing authentic organisational culture to driving a complete re-think about reward strategy based on organisational value.

Our next IiP event is on 10 May. Tickets are free – but be warned, they normally sell out within 24-48 hours. To find out how to obtain yours keep an eye on our website and Twitter feed. Or give us a call on 0207 224 3307.

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