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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<