Creating Mental Breakthroughs: Uncomfortable Conversations Can Initiate Positive Change

Creating Mental Breakthroughs: Uncomfortable Conversations Can Initiate Positive Change

Challenge for the leader holding the conversation

The desired outcome is always owned by the person in front of you, not by anyone else. The stated request was to find ways to motivate unmotivated employees. Yet the cynicism in the manager’s voice reflects surety that the situation is cultural and impermeable with the current work team. Regardless if this is true or not, the leader needs to listen for the block to success as the manager tells the story. The focus of the conversation should not be on the manager’s employees; it should be on the manager’s blind spots. Therefore the reflection and exploration would focus on what the manager is doing, who he thinks he is in the situation in terms of his role, and what he might be doing to actually intensify, nor alleviate, the resistance the workers are demonstrating. Otherwise, no solution will produce significant and long-lasting results.

Allow the person to vent to help create safety. Even  if you have seen  this  problem  a  hundred  times  before,  you  need  to acknowledge the disappointment and anger your manager feels. The truth about what is creating the difficulty will surface inside the complaints. Often a good dose of reflection—allowing the manager to hear his own words—will shine a light on what is wrong with  his approach. Then you can address the conflict in how his current approach contradicts how he wants to be seen by his direct reports.

In this situation, as the manager described the work habits of his people, his disdain grew. The angrier he got,  the more he revealed  his pattern  for constantly giving directions and explanations  about  how  work  should  get  done,  which  also implied that  many  of  his conversations  with  his  reports were  focused on what  people were doing wrong.  He wasn’t the light-hearted, praise-giving person he described himself to be.

When you sense anger and frustration, listen with your heart.  When  explaining  the situation,  the  manager  expressed both  disappointment and  frustration  because  h is direct  reports didn’t  appreciate  what  he  thought  he  was doing  for  them.  In turn, the hearts of his employees were hardened from neglect. The questions that emerge from listening with your heart could provide the key to what the manager needs to shift the situation.

As a result, Martin realized that his employees did not see him as a caring leader. If he wanted them to listen, he first had to listen to them. He committed to meeting with each of his team members to talk about the significance of their work and what they hoped for in their careers. He also clarified the new mindset he would use while having these conversations.

Adapted from The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs (Berrett-Koehler, October 2014).


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Marcia ReynoldsIn addition to coaching leaders in global companies, Dr. Marcia Reynolds travels the world speaking and teaching classes in advanced coaching skills, leadership and emotional intelligence. She is the author of 3 books and has been quoted in major online and print publications in the US and Europe.

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