We have all been there. We are in a meeting or conversation with an employee, co-worker, vendor, etc. We have something important we need to say to them, and we don’t know exactly how to deliver the hard truth. We know the conversation will be difficult and perhaps even emotionally upsetting, and we don’t know exactly how to cover what we need to, at least not without hurting the other person.
Becky has worked for you the past seven years, and there was a new client (Banter Inc.) that your company just landed, and you are certain that Becky feels she is best qualified to run the new Banter project, and that she truly wants to lead it. And while you personally like Becky, and for the most part feel she has been successful in her current role, you simply do not believe she is the best person for leading the Banter project. In fact, over the past couple months you have observed what you believe to be declining leadership qualities, though you have not mentioned any of that to her.
You now realize you have not been a good leader for Becky- you should have mentioned your perspective of her work lately, but you have let things slide.
So you ask yourself “Why have I not shared my true concerns with Becky? What is holding me back?” You know you should have said something long ago before things got to the point where she would be expecting to obtain the new role with the Banter account. You rationalize to yourself that you did not want to hurt her feelings, or somehow that her performance would improve without your getting involved or saying anything.
While those reasons may be credible-there was a deeper principle at play here- YOU SIMPLY WERE AVOIDING “THE MOMENT OF TRUTH.”
You know exactly what this is- that uneasy and specific point in time — right as you’re saying something that feels risky, and right before the person responds? That’s “THE MOMENT OF TRUTH.”
Back to the conversation with Becky. You know you had delayed giving her the news that she would NOT be leading the Banter project, and you were afraid about how YOU would feel after giving her the bad news. You felt the feedback might hurt her, drive a wedge in your relationship with her, and maybe even come across as unreasonable and unfounded.
You are now at the point of no return- and you simply must address things with Becky. You can no longer avoid it. And due to the fact that you waited so long to speak with her, the tension and awkwardness factor have only been heightened. And because Becky was not only not getting the Banter project, you know you must also tell her the whole truth about her recent performance. It was time to put all the cards out on the table- and the “moment of truth” would likely be even more difficult and painful than if you had told Becky early on exactly where she stood.
So now, there Becky sits across from you, and you are both anxious, but for different reasons. She is fidgety because she is desperately wanting to hear from you that she will be leading the new project, which will be a huge new career and financial opportunity for her. Your nerves are rattled because you want to “let her down easy,” but you just don’t know how to go about being candid with her, and yet not hurting her feelings.
So the two of you exchange small talk and pleasantries, and you slowly transition to the issue at hand. You tell Becky you know she wants to lead the Banter account, and that opportunity would indeed stretch her as a leader. You clearly state that the importance of the Banter project to your company will call for very high level leadership. After a few minutes of commentary on the Banter project, you finally get around to offering up a few comments about how you have seen a slip in her performance recently, and that you are not sure she could adequately lead the team assigned to Banter. She asks you a few questions to get a better feel of where you coming from, and you answer them all. You do so well avoiding “the moment of truth,” that the conversation has now drawn on for over 20 minutes, and yet you still have not clearly told Becky she would not be leading Banter. You realize that at this point in the conversation, an objective observer would not know for sure if you were going to award the Banter project to Becky, or terminate her from the company. Your build up to this point could have led her to either conclusion.
Becky finally asks you point blank, “So, am I going to be offered the leadership role for the Banter project, or not?”
Finally….”the moment of truth” has arrived….
In the broader sense of things, this type of behavior is quite common for leaders everywhere. Employers are not totally up front telling employees that they won’t be getting the promotion. Coaches not telling a player whether he/she will be a starter for the team. Teachers beating around the bush with parents who are seeking answers on their child’s academic capacity.
At a company- wide meeting, a business owner methodically builds a case to eliminate an underperforming division in the company. But because he does not come right out with what his decision is, the team members begin to assess unimportant details surrounding his case before they even know for sure where he is headed in his presentation.
And in yet another case, in a meeting with several departmental heads, a CEO has the intention of telling her team that she had created a new position, and would be hiring a new executive, to which all these leaders would soon report. Concerned that this would be a controversial decision that would be met with much resistance, she spends the first 15 minutes providing context to a decision that had not yet been announced. After finally getting to the point with the details of the decision she had made, one leader leaned over to another and said “What a waste of time. By the time she told us what she was doing, she had already lost our attention as we were trying to figure out exactly where the conversation was headed.”
So begs the question, “why do we take so long to deliver hard news?”
Several factors are at play:
- We want to build an intellectual foundation that demonstrates that we have taken the time to thoroughly think things thru before coming to a decision
- We want to appear fully competent and that we have weighed all the pros and cons involved with the decision/issue at hand, and that our decision is the only rational one given all the facts
- Emotionally, we want to protect our own feelings, and those of others, so we procrastinate communicating clearly our difficult decision
- We know this simple truth- hard things are never easy — at least not at first
In reality, delaying hard news that is inevitable is almost always counterproductive. It only enhances and extends the discomfort and unease of all involved.
So, the solution is very simple, and straightforward: BEGIN THE CONVERSATION WITH “THE MOMENT OF TRUTH.”
In other words- lead with the hard news-make it your opening line.
Applying this discipline with Becky would have sounded something like this:
“Becky, I am glad we are having this conversation today. Candidly, it is overdue, and I have not been the type of leader I should have been for you. I have decided not to place you in leadership of the Banter project, and here is why.”
In the second scenario, the business owner should have started the meeting by saying “I have decided to eliminate our laminating division due to missing revenue targets by an average of 30% for the past five years, and I want to take a few minutes to walk you thru the decision to close that part of our business, and what we can do to reallocate resources to other more profitable parts of the company.”
And finally, in the third example, the CEO would have been much better off to begin the meeting by saying something along the lines of,” Thank you all for coming today, and I have a very important decision that I have made, that I need to share with you immediately. It is critical that you understand the reasons I have decided to add a new executive leader to our team, one who you all will report to, which will in turn free up much of my time to go out and land new opportunities for the company, thus securing for us all a more profitable long term future. I will now share the top three factors that led to this decision…”
In nearly all cases, if the one delivering the hard news will have the courage and wisdom to share the difficult decision right up front, surprisingly enough it usually actually defuses the tension in the room, and allows people to let the walls down and actually listen to the reasons behind the decision.
Often times, those receiving the hard news will actually immediately signal agreement (or at least understanding) of the decision, and there may be very little additional details or explanation necessary.
It is important to remember that in times like this, it is common to get caught up with the belief that the news will be devastating to the one(s) receiving it. And while it is of course often difficult for them to absorb at first, it is easy to overestimate the true impact that will be felt by those on the receiving end.
For the most part, people are resilient- and usually they bounce back pretty quickly from bad news- and often times stronger and more grounded than before they received it. It is often more uncomfortable for the person delivering the hard news than for the one(s) receiving it.
In summary, next time you must have a conversation you are dreading- lead with “the moment of truth.” Say the hardest thing you must say first- and let things flow from there. Go ahead and get past that cringe feeling- do it fast and early. As Jesus told Judas, “Whatever you must do, do it quickly.” (John 13:27).
This is a simple, yet incredibly powerful thing to do- and yet it takes tremendous emotional courage. But you can do this. You got it. As the old saying goes “some things are hard, until they are easy.” The more you practice this discipline, the easier it will become, and the better you will be at it. It will become second nature. And those around you will be grateful for it. They will truly appreciate your honesty, candor, and transparency. And they will be thrilled to know where they stand with you at any given time. Being direct and upfront does not mean being callous or unnecessarily harsh. In fact, it’s the opposite; done with care, being direct is far more considerate.
You will be amazed at how much tension is let out of the room immediately — and how free you will be to share openly and transparently with the reason(s) behind your decision.
And be prepared to be surprised by how readily the hard news is received. Of course there will be exceptions to this, but for the most part it plays true.
One last thought, this approach of delivering “the moment of truth” not only reduces anxiety in a conversation- it saves time as well. In our earlier example with Becky, while she likely was not happy with the decision, she understood why and came to accept the decision quickly- perhaps even quicker than it took to deliver the news to her!
Application / Discussion:
- 1When it comes to having difficult conversations, how well do you do? What do you do well? What do you struggle with?
- 2When you must have a difficult conversation, do you tend to “beat around the bush,” or do you tend to get to the point quickly and directly?
- 3Think back over your career. Did you ever work with/for someone who got to “the moment of truth” quickly in a conversation? If so, tell me us what it was like to work for/with them”.
- 4What was the last truly difficult conversation you had? And if you were to grade yourself (A-F) on how well you did in terms of directly discussing what needed to be discussed, how would you grade yourself?
- 5Let’s invest a few minutes and explore, discuss, and/or perhaps even look up a few Bible verses that will give us insight as to how to have a difficult conversation:
- 6Can you think of a pending difficult conversation? Let’s work thru it together and see how we can better help you prepare for it.