John C. Maxwell: Tough Talks

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 18, 2013

Nobody likes to have tough conversations, but if you’re a leader, you can’t avoid them.

You know what I mean: The all-star who used to hit the ball out of the park is now striking out. The weak link on the team is making it necessary for others to pick up the slack. The negative person in the office is killing morale by bringing down everyone else.

Or maybe the leader who’s chronically late is setting a bad example for the rest of the team.

If you’re the boss, you’re responsible for addressing difficult issues with your people to try to correct them, but you’re surely not looking forward to that conversation.

I have to admit that I haven’t always been good at these powwows. Early in my career, I avoided them entirely. I was a people-pleaser. I wanted everyone to be happy. But the reality is, if you’re the leader and you’re not addressing problems within your team, the person you’re avoiding may be happy, but the others are not. Your lack of leadership is holding everyone back.

How do you usually handle a problem with someone you lead? Do you hold up? Waiting doesn’t solve anything. Problems don’t just go away on their own. Do you blow up? That may make you feel better briefly, but it usually just makes things worse. Do you give up? That undermines your leadership credibility and hurts your team.

There’s really only one good solution: Step up!

The truth is, tough conversations are opportunities to help the individual and the team, and strengthen your leadership credibility. And if you do it right, you actually strengthen the relationship.

Think about the tough conversation you need to have right now, the one you’ve probably been putting off. Now take the following steps:

1. Plan to meet privately, ASAP.

Whenever you come across a significant problem, you want to address it at the first possible opportunity. As Albert Schweitzer said, “Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now—always.”

Maybe you’ve already let some time go by. You can’t change that. But you can keep from letting more time go to waste. Make an appointment to meet with the responsible party privately, face to face, and do it as soon as you can.

2. Assume good motives.

William James observed, “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. The factor is attitude.”

If you assume someone’s intentions are bad, your attitude will be poor and you will make the person defensive. Go in believing the best in the person. Give him or her the benefit of the doubt.

3. Offer specific observations and impacts.

It’s difficult for people to change and improve in response to vague impressions and general comments. Of little help are statements such as, “Your performance hasn’t been very good lately,” or “You don’t get along with others.” Instead say, “You failed to get me the report that was due Tuesday” or “You’ve closed only two of the last 10 deals” or “You yelled at Hannah in the meeting yesterday.”

Once you’ve described the problematic behavior specifically, explain its negative impact. This notifies the person of what needs to change and why.

4. Hear them out.

When I have tough conversations with people, I always ask for their side of the story. Why? Because I’m not always right.

You wind up feeling pretty foolish when trying to correct something that didn’t actually happen the way you believed it did. One more good reason to hear the other person’s side of the story is sometimes there are additional factors in play: Maybe the employee has been late for work because her car was totaled. Maybe he isn’t performing well because a loved one has cancer, or he has been sick himself—you really never know.

From time to time, a leader can solve a work issue by helping someone get through a personal problem. That’s a win for everyone.

5. Agree on a course of action.

If you don’t define a solution and agree to what needs to happen in the future, then both you and the other person will be frustrated. You can’t hit a target you haven’t identified.

6. Validate the person and commit to help.

If at all possible, you want to encourage your team member to change and grow through a particular situation. One of the best ways to do that is to express how you value him or her as an individual and contributor.

Every person has intrinsic value and is more valuable than the work they perform. Affirm that. If the individual has been successful in the past and played an important role on the team, mention that. If the two of you have had a good relationship in the past, recall that. If you believe the person can grow and change, express that.

The absolute worst that can happen is you will lose a person who’s hurting the team. The best that can happen is you tell him or her the truth, offer a pathway to improve and encourage the person to take the next step forward.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be,” Goethe said, “and you help them become what they are capable of  being.”