Robust Conversations: The art of building strong and responsible teams – Part I
For leaders, the art of building strong responsible teams hinges on their ability to have robust conversations. In this article, I’ll focus on what it means to have a robust conversation and how to prepare for it. I’ll also leave you with some simple, yet powerful tools, to set up your robust conversations for success.
But first, let’s talk about bad conversations.
I’m not the only person who’s grappled with how to deliver a tough message, spending hours arguing with myself, and agonising over the best approach and timing. What happens? Frustration builds…and builds…and then…Vesuvius erupts! Your message bursts out of you like lava, wreaking havoc.
Some years back, I let this happen to me – and in the space of a few minutes, I had alienated half of my team, and terrified the rest of them. I got the full impact of what I’d said as I read the faces in the room. It was a big wake up call. I remember sitting quietly in my office afterwards, sick to my stomach, thinking: what now?!? Well, I had to go into serious damage control, because my bad conversation had seriously moved us backwards, not forwards.
In contrast, robust conversations are an ongoing journey to say what needs to be said, in a way that people will hear it.
Robust vs Difficult Conversations
A robust conversation differs from a difficult conversation, because a difficult conversation has a closed, predetermined end-point. There isn’t room for new ideas or alterative outcomes. While a robust conversation has an open outcome, encouraging new solutions and alternatives, allowing you to move forward with a new outcome that you’ve co-created and agreed together.
Setting up Robust Conversations
If ‘Robust’ means strong, vigorous, resilient, healthy, a structure that holds up – then a robust conversation is a strong and healthy conversation that holds up over time.
Robust conversations are about ‘nipping things in the bud’, before small problems become bigger problems. They are a Now, Now, Now experience.
They’re about calling it when you see it, and not walking past anything. When you avoid or delay the conversation, you pay. The longer you leave things unsaid, the higher the price – like compound interest!
So, as a leader, it is your responsibility to create an environment for robust conversations to take place at any time and in any place. As a leader, you are also completely responsible for the things you haven’t said.
There is a popular saying that ‘the truth will set you free’. Well, I’d add that the truth will upset you first – and that’s a good thing. If it upsets you, you need to process it – look at it dispassionately or with rage. If you can take it as real, or recognise that it’s a point of view that has some truth, then do something about it. Let the truth upset you because then you may do something different.
This is an important message to share with your people – a robust conversation might be upsetting, but it is also a gift – it’s feedback in the moment, with clarity that provides the opportunity to course-correct immediately, to do something differently, to do it better.
A valuable tool in setting up the Robust Conversation, is the Inoculation Tool. This is a pathway leading up to a powerful conversation that prepares people by setting the context and your intention. An inoculation may go something like this: “This may be difficult for you to hear and it might hurt you. That’s not my intention. Rather, I want to move us forward. I’d like your permission to proceed?”
The inoculation tool allows you to tell the truth anywhere and anytime, but also to do it with compassion.
As leaders, one of our greatest challenges is to consistently hold the line, knowing what’s right and taking the right action. Seeking permission to take bold action maintains people’s trust. You should also use your organisational values to support you in having the conversation, to provide context and meaning.
So, to summarise:
- You’ll have the robust conversation immediately, when you first see something (instead of hoping they’ll get the idea, or saving it for their performance appraisal).
- You’ll keep the outcome open.
- Once you’ve discussed the way forward with specific outcomes and agreed measurements, you need to get their commitment. This means you both leave the conversation with clarity on, and accountability for, the set of actions you’ve agreed.
- Finally, you’ll give that person time to correct, checking in regularly, keeping space open for further robust conversations, because remember: robust conversations are an ongoing journey to say what needs to be said, in a way that people will hear it.
And that works both ways – as a leader from you to your people, but also, from them to you.
Nevertheless, people have a number of obstacles to having robust conversations, including:
- Conflict avoidance
- Fear of hurting people’s feelings
(I say, being NICE is an acronym for Nothing In me Cares Enough to tell the truth!)
- Anticipating resistance, and
- Fear of not controlling the outcome.
So how do we give our people the tools to have robust conversations? How do we invite and equip them to play in this new, exciting and possibly uncomfortable space?