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How To Address Tough Topics with Your Team in 4 Steps

Few people look forward to difficult conversations. Even fewer are good at leading them. Some people are too worried about pleasing everyone, so they avoid them all together. Their solution is to do nothing because then no one will be upset (though they don’t realize that they are catering to the outspoken obstructionists, infuriating the quiet critics, and deepening rancor between camps). Other people believe the best way to navigate a mine field is to run straight through, but winging tough discussions is a reckless roll of the dice. Here are four steps leaders can take when addressing tense topics with a team. To help make them more concrete, I’ll use a hypothetical problem: a company has cut the coffee budget to avoid salary freezes, and people are complaining about the low supply and quality.

1. Take ownership and set the stage

From the start, it’s important to set the tone of the conversation and put a face to the issue. Leadership is about taking responsibility. Likely, everyone is already blaming the leaders for group issues, so there isn’t much to lose by taking ownership. Often, the leaders become “they” (or some other amorphous group, like “the administration”). They don’t understand. They are out of touch. When leaders begin difficult discussions by taking responsibility for dysfunction, they release pressure and humanize the conversation. On the other hand, when leaders use the passive voice, avoid putting the blame on any living soul, and are uncomfortable using direct and honest language, the landscape grows more toxic.

Example of what to do

I know this has been a problem for a few months, and I’m sorry we’re just talking about it now. We should have had this conversation sooner — that’s on me — and it’s a difficult discussion that we don’t all agree on.

Example of what not to do

We are aware that there have been some complaints about the coffee, and we are considering the most appropriate next steps that balance the collective needs of the company. In the meantime, please know that your voices have been heard and communicated.

2. Reel in the narrative

Because people tend to avoid confrontation when it comes to contentious issues, the true narrative can often spin off into different dramas. Without clear communication of the facts, people turn to assumptions, rumors, and the ever-winding grapevine. To reel in the narrative and get everyone back on the same page, leaders are responsible for communicating the pertinent information. With the truth, people can understand how a problem became a problem and spend less time dwelling on the past. The big no-no’s here are lying and manipulating. Leaders can’t straighten out the narrative with crooked information.

Example of what to do

We have been looking for places to reduce our budget, so we cut back on our coffee supply. We also purchased a cheaper product than previous years. When we originally made this decision, we worried it might upset people, though we felt it was the responsible choice. We have heard a number of complaints this year that we have discussed at the executive level, but we have not communicated that dialogue with enough transparency.

Example of what not to do

Because of financial limitations, the company had no other choice but to reduce non-essential expenses, including coffee. Though we regret that some employees are not satisfied, our research proved that this was the right decision.

3. Restate and explain the current thinking

A special few read the full employee handbook. No one memorizes it. People come and go. Policies change. When everyone says they understand and accept the employee guidelines, they are demonstrating general obedience to organizational standards, but they don’t practice morning recitations of the handbook or code of conduct. Prolonged contention around a policy suggests a lack of clarity (or bad policy). As a leader, you can reel in the narrative a bit further and firm up the ground under everyone’s feet. If the policy is crystal clear, you can avoid future misinterpretations and frustration.

Example of what to do

As it stands, the company policy allows every employee to get one cup of company coffee a day during working hours. Prioritizing other pertinent employee benefits and company needs, we chose to reduce the coffee budget as a non-essential expense. We consulted other businesses in similar situations in the decision-making process. This is one of several cuts that helped us avoid salary freezes this year. The intention of the current policy was to find a compromise that supported our coffee drinkers and protected the most important benefits for everyone.

Example of what not to do

Our policy on coffee is clear. You can read it in the employee handbook if you need to review the details. We will continue to follow our pre-established and communally agreed upon company policy until further notice.

4. Discuss how you will move forward and improve

It’s not enough to say, “I hear you.” In the case of poor leadership, “I hear you” translates to “I don’t plan to do anything about this.” I know I would rather have a boss say just that instead of giving me false (and skeptical) hope. There needs to be action, even if the action is unpopular. People respect doers and appreciate honesty. Leaders whose words do not align with their actions lose trust overtime, as well as the credit to make unpopular decisions. No empty promises. No vague declarations. A straightforward plan that people can see unfolding is the ticket to growth and buy in.

Example of what to do

We recognize that we could have handled this better, as we underestimated the value of coffee to our employees. Moving forward, we plan to:

  • Gather feedback to get a more accurate understanding of the coffee demand so that we can be more efficient with our supply

  • Consider changes in how we provide coffee to prioritize quantity, quality, and convenience (for example, asking employees to bring their own mug and reducing the cost of single-use cups)

  • Look for alternative non-essential budget cuts using employee feedback

  • Communicate future policy changes with greater transparency and timeliness

  • If you have any questions or concerns, I am happy to schedule a time to chat in more detail

Example of what not to do

We are constantly reviewing our company policy and balancing the needs of our various stakeholders to best achieve our mission. Our employees’ needs are of the utmost importance when considering future decisions. We appreciate your patience and understanding while we work to improve.

Conflict is a good thing

These steps are the start of a conversation, not an attempt to sweep conflict under the rug. Conflict is necessary, and good leaders normalize it with their teams. Great teams do not fear disagreement. Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” The path to unlocking potential begins with the courage to turn the key.


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