Honest, effective communication is always a positive—especially when there’s an elephant in the room. But it’s possible to turn even the most difficult talks into avenues for positive change.

We all make mistakes, from the top of a team on down. As entrepreneurs, accountability means acknowledging and addressing our bad calls. It also means being willing to expect it of others by providing open communication and constructive criticism that inspire reflection and growth, not recrimination and guilt.

Leaders do their team a huge favor when they show they can face up to the difficult stuff. And believe it or not, your team may actually prefer constructive criticism to praise! Understanding that should help you feel better about getting that elephant out of your workspace.

Staying quiet may be the worst thing you can do

Discretion is often a valuable skill, but true dysfunction needs to be nipped in the bud ASAP (this can be hugely helped if you know your core values before making the right hires). Avoidance of an issue only lets it fester and spread to cause more damage than necessary. Why do entrepreneurs put off tough talks when courage is part of our DNA? Sometimes we’re reluctant to rock the boat by creating conflict. Maybe we don’t trust the person to take feedback as well as we’d like.

Whatever the reason for delaying an uncomfortable conversation, the buck stops with us. Leaders are ultimately responsible for the fallout if we don’t sit down for the right talk at the right time. My previous blog on diagnosing dysfunction details how some conflict can be healthy for a team, so don’t let conflict alone hold you back. Don’t worry about opening up about how tough things are, either. I made that leap to being authentic and vulnerable, realized positive results, and I’ve never looked back.

Key to addressing these difficult subjects is doing it in the right way. I like to promote an approach that dumps all of the negative trigger words before a talk even starts. For example, this isn’t going to be a confrontation—it’s going to be a conversation. It’s not going to be a heavy talk—it’s going to be a valuable exchange. This isn’t just semantics. It’s within every leader’s power to transform even the most volatile work situation into something productive, based on how they frame the issue.

Winning at words without a war

We often work ourselves up into thinking difficult conversations will be confrontations. Predictions like “this are going to be a fight” doom talks before they start by setting up a combative winner/loser dynamic. Believe me, that’s a loser/loser situation. This is one of the ways the Entrepreneurial Operating System® offers a different, methodical, and ultimately constructive approach to accountability that can help these talks.

EOS® uses a three-point design that understands and often preempts the typical course of an uncomfortable dialogue. It helps because citing a one-time issue can seem petty (unless it’s suitably severe) and four times is just overkill.

When a leader can provide three examples of an issue, an employee can explain away one; maybe two. Three is the magic number where rationalization or denial doesn’t work to prolong the problem. This is the critical point where individuals are more likely to be open to well-delivered feedback—and where we, as leaders, must appreciate the importance of proceeding well. I like to say to the companies I work with: “One story can be taken as made-up; two examples could be a conspiracy, but three starts to show a pattern.”

The five foundations of defusing tough talks

  • Control your emotions – Strong management starts with self-management. Don’t be swayed by preconceived notions and never begin a tough conversation in a negative emotional state. Clear your head, check your ego at the door, and regulate your feelings. Leaders who don’t practice smart self-control never inspire it in others.
  • Create a culture of safety – It’s important to hold truly uncomfortable talks in the right setting. You may need to choose a quiet, private space where any appropriate feedback given and received is confidential. Connect with the person alone (if possible) to avoid the dreaded “Can I see you in my office?” in front of colleagues. That can make them nervous and send ripples through the rest of the team.
  • Offer solutions with clarity – Leaders usually know the way they’d like things done but it’s how we say something that makes all the difference. You’ve used the EOS three-point approach to clearly highlight the issue. Now, offer your solution not as an ultimatum but as very clear guidance. Then, ask your employees how they feel about it or if they’ve got an idea they think works better. Really listen here—in some cases, a suggestion may be all the problem needs to get solved.
  • Make all criticism constructive – Somewhere along the way, the word “criticism” became a cringe-inducing trigger for people. Many forget that criticism is an assessment both of flaws AND merits. I’d be hard-pressed to think of talks where something positive can’t be said about an employee’s performance along with a suggestion on how to improve something else.
  • Commit to a shared vision; then review it – The last stage of owning a tough talk comes from that handshake moment when both parties see the problem and agree on the solution. Arrange to check in later to see how that course of action has helped (or hasn’t). From there, both parties know to expect another conversation which helps lessen the stress of these kinds of talks.

In the end, a difficult conversation may only be as difficult as the environment leaders create. Almost any talk can be held in a respectful and receptive way when we create an open business culture—and one that listens to and cares about people.

What’s more, if we have quarterly conversations (not “reviews”) then difficult discussions may lose their sting. They become commonplace and expected, not rare and awkward. I recommend that entrepreneurs check out my communication archives for more tips on owning uncomfortable conversations and creating beneficial dialogue built on honesty and integrity.

Then again, there are times when talks get even tougher, and it’s time to let a team member go. Read this blog for some tips on identifying that situation and handling it appropriately.

Book a keynote presentation with Cesar for more information on creating a culture of positive accountability and empowering your business, so you can live life by design.