Leading with Trust

5 Tips for Handling Delicate Conversations

coffee conversationOne of the certainties of managerial life is there will be occasions where you need to have a delicate conversation with someone. No matter if it’s an employee, colleague, or vendor, the thought of having a potentially challenging conversation with someone causes fear and hesitation. And of course this isn’t just an issue in the workplace; the same dynamic happens in our personal relationships as well.

I had a delicate conversation with my 21 year-old son last week, and frankly, I could have handled it better. If I had practiced what I’m preaching here, I’m pretty sure the discussion would have been more fruitful. Here’s the tips I should have followed more closely:

1. Clarify your motive and desired outcome for the conversation—In my case, I had been stewing over a discussion my son and I had a few weeks earlier. In that prior conversation, I felt my son had neglected to mention some important facts that I later discovered on my own. I felt he had been less that truthful with me and my motive was to let him know how I felt so I could get the weight off my chest. I thought I was clear on the motive, but looking back I see it was a pretty selfish one. A better motive would have been to learn more about why my son shared what he did rather than accuse him of purposefully omitting facts. I also wasn’t clear on my desired outcome. Was I looking for an apology? Did I want him to acknowledge he made a mistake? Since I wasn’t fully clear on the outcome, it left the conversation in a ragged state when we finished.

2. Pick the right time and place—This one is hard for me because I don’t like to leave things unsettled. I’d rather address an issue quickly and get it resolved, rather than wait for things to settle down and perhaps sort themselves out naturally. When planning for a delicate conversation, choose a location that will create a comfortable and safe environment for the meeting. Choose a time of day when the other party will be at their best, and havethe right kind of open energy that will allow them to hear what you’re saying.

3. Watch your tone—Studies have shown that just 7% of communication is the actual words we speak. That leaves 93% of communication happening through tone and body language. The tone of your voice will literally set the tone for the conversation. Use a tone that is warm, supportive, inquisitive, and non-judgmental. Raising your voice, having a sharp tongue, or using defensive or dismissive body language (e.g., crossing your arms, rolling your eyes) will doom your conversation for failure.

The health of our relationships is directly proportional to the quality of our conversations

4. Invite dialogue—Too often our delicate conversations turn into monologues. That’s because we feel more comfortable if we’re in control of the discussion. We can be afraid of what the other person may say or how she will steer the conversation, so we rattle on at the mouth until we’ve said our peace. The best way to handle a delicate conversation is to invite dialogue. Ask open-ended questions that allow the other person to express her thoughts and share openly. This builds a climate of trust and safety which facilitates more open and honest communication.

5. Express support and empathy—The delicate conversation with my son was a textbook example of what not to do. If you recall, in a prior conversation with my son I was upset he didn’t share certain details with me that I thought were relevant. After he explained why he omitted those facts, I relied upon my trust-building and leadership expertise and responded, “If you believe that, then you’re lying to yourself!” I don’t think I’ll be winning Dad of the Year award anytime soon. I missed my opportunity to empathize with him and express support for his point of view. Instead, I selfishly used the opening to blast him with a critical comment that I had been harboring for weeks. Even if your point of view is correct, a delicate conversation will go off the rails if you shut the other person down by not expressing empathy and support.

Conversation is the vehicle by which we build trust, lead others, and develop relationships. The health of our relationships is directly proportional to the quality of our conversations, so it’s important we develop effective communication skills. When it comes to discussing delicate topics, it’s important to be clear on our motives, choose the right time and place, watch our tone, invite dialogue, and express support and empathy.

4 Strategies for Leading in Uncertain Times

Uncertainty is scary. The unknown is scary. Leaders will always face uncertainty and the future will always be unknown.

A company team I worked with recently has some pretty big anticipated hurdles coming up in about a year. The height of the hurdles is not clear, nor if there will be ground to land on when they leap over. They’re struggling not to fret. They’re struggling not to worry.

Needless to say, this impacts focus, productivity and morale.

The management team wanted to know – in the face of these uncertain times, how can we support our teams?

Here are four of the recommendations I gave them. These can work in nearly every situation:

  1. Your team is a reflection of you – as the leader you can’t be Chicken Little. Emotions are contagious. If you’re freaking out, revving up, snowballing catastrophe, so will your team. Guaranteed. Watch your language – what are you saying about the future? You should acknowledge the fear, you just don’t want to feed it. Acknowledging the fear lets your team know that you “get it” – you’re not clueless or in denial. This is part of sharing your humanity as a leader. Stay positive, not pessimistic or Pollyanna. If you need to unabashedly “release” your own worries, share your concerns with a comforting friend outside of your workplace.
  2. Remember: What you and your team are up to in the world TODAY is bigger than this fear. You can’t let the fear become a scapegoat for not getting the work done. There is work to be done today. You have clients who need you to show up 100% today. Focus on the top three strategic action items your team can accomplish this week towards your quarterly goals. Celebrate completion. In other words, heed the words of Corrie ten Boom, whose family helped many Jewish people escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II: “Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, it empties today of its strengths.”
  3. What actually is known and unknown? Defining these two in simple high-level bullets can be surprisingly empowering.

What’s known?

  • The present
  • We’re all in this together
  • It’s not our first rodeo
  • There’s work to do now
  • We’re resilient and resourceful
  • We’ll figure out when the time comes
  • Our commitment and convictions
  • What’s next

What’s unknown?

  • The future
  • What’s going to happen
  • The weather two weeks from now

I have a roofing company client. About 90% of its revenue is determined by Mother Nature. If there’s a storm, it makes money. If there isn’t, it doesn’t. That’s uncertainty; yet the company is not paralyzed by the uncertainty of Mother Nature.

  1. Focus on what you can control. You can always control your response, attitude, behavior, words and actions. You can always choose to be proactive rather than paralyzed. In times of uncertainty, step up ownership of your authority. When the fog is thick, they want the leader to lead.

Don’t let uncertainty undermine you or your team’s efforts. Stay on course. Focus and finish on what needs to be accomplished now.

Acknowledge the fear, but don’t feed it.

Lastly, be courageous and confident in your convictions.


Guest Post by Kris Boesch, author of Culture Works: How to Create Happiness in the Workplace. Kris is the CEO and founder of Choose People, a company that transforms company cultures.

These 3 Actions Will Make You Everyone’s Favorite Boss

I remember the rude awakening my oldest son received when he moved into a management position with a national pizza chain. He learned what it was like to carry a greater level of responsibility, deal with unreliable employees, and train new team members. One morning he walked into the kitchen, bleary eyed from lack of sleep, and vented to me about having to pull the closing shift the previous night for another store whose manager quit on the spot. To top it off, he had to turn around that same morning to open up his own store. Welcome to management, kid.

Being a good manager isn’t easy. It can seem like a million things compete for your attention and some days it feels as though you aren’t up for the task. Don’t worry, we all feel that way sometimes. The good news is there are some easy, straight-forward ways to become the manager that everyone loves.

Show Empathy — People love to work for managers who value and appreciate them as individuals, and not just as faceless workers showing up to do a job. Being empathetic means putting yourself in other people’s shoes and looking at life from their vantage point. You do this by asking open-ended questions about how they’re feeling and listening to their responses (yes, that means you actually have to have a conversation). You can also demonstrate empathy by being understanding when your employees experience difficult circumstances. Whether it’s taking time off work to deal with a sick child or elderly parent, or just listening to them vent a little bit about their rough day at work, people appreciate their boss responding with an attitude of “how can I help?” rather than “keep your personal problems at home.” You can be the most knowledgeable, technically proficient boss in the world, but if you don’t give your people a little bit of your heart they won’t you give you theirs.

Have Their Back — Great managers assume best intentions about their team members. They operate on the assumption that everyone is trying their best and no one is intentionally trying to make a mistake. If a mistake happens, use the occasion as a learning opportunity to help your team member grow. Don’t play the blame game or throw your team member under the bus for goofing up. Another way to have the back of your employees is to advocate for their needs. Being a manager means sometimes having to defend your people from unreasonable expectations or demands from other people or parts of the organization. It’s a challenge to strike the right balance between protecting your people and advocating for their needs versus doing what’s best for the organization, even if it has a negative impact on your team. But your people will love you and be supportive of your leadership if they consistently see you stick up for them when appropriate.

Make Work Fun — We spend too much of our lives at work to have it be drudgery or uninspiring. Managers can be tremendously influential in making work a little bit more fun and it doesn’t take much planning or effort to pull it off. You’d be amazed at how much mileage you can get from doing simple things like calling an afternoon break and serving popsicles, letting people go home from work 30 minutes early on a Friday afternoon, having a potluck lunch, or creating fun awards or rituals for your team. A few managers on my team recently created a humorous award involving the recipient wearing a unicorn-themed ski cap. Unicorns are an inside joke for the team and wearing the cap is slightly embarrassing, but everyone secretly wants to win the award because it’s positive recognition of their work. Managers who make the workplace a fun and rewarding place to be will develop loyal and hard-working team members.

Management is a tough gig but you can make it easier by following a few commonsense principles. Developing empathy in your relationships, standing up for your people when needed, and making work fun will put you on track toward becoming everyone’s favorite boss.

10 Signs You’re Suffering From Rear-view Mirror Leadership

rear-view-mirrorI was high on endorphins yesterday morning after I completed my usual Saturday bike ride. I had retreated to the San Diego coast to escape the heat of where I live inland, and I was feeling great after knocking off a crisp 40-mile ride.

As I drove home, the freeway transitioned into a city road and I eased up behind a gentleman in a black Mercedes. He immediately slowed down significantly below the speed limit in a not so subtle attempt to tell me he didn’t want me following too close behind. I slowed down, all the while observing him eyeballing me through his rear-view mirror. Still not satisfied with the distance between our cars, he continued to pump his brakes and slowed down even more, to the point of holding up traffic several cars deep. Continuing to drive significantly below the speed limit, the grumpy Mercedes driver kept his attention focused on the rear-view mirror instead of watching the road up ahead. I switched lanes to pass Mr. Grumpy Pants and watched him as I drove by. He never took his eyes off the rear-view mirror as he proceeded to do the same thing to the next driver who moved up behind him.

The grumpy Mercedes driver got me thinking about how easy it is to lead by looking through the rear-view mirror instead of the front windshield. What I mean by that is we can get so focused on what’s happened behind us that we forget to look forward to the opportunities ahead of us. Here are 10 signs you may be suffering from rear-view mirror leadership:

1. Your natural response to change is “That’s not how we do it around here.” Change brings out interesting behaviors in people. I’ve found most people don’t mind change as long as it’s their idea, they’re in control of it, and it benefits them in some way. But most of the time, though, change is thrust upon us in one way or another and we have to deal with it. Rear-view mirror leaders usually fixate on what they’re going to lose as a result of a change and they expend all their effort in trying to prevent or minimize the impact. Forward-looking leaders search for the opportunities of growth and improvement that will result from change. It’s our choice as to how we respond.

2. Things are never as good as “back in the day.” I’m a nostalgic person by nature and am susceptible to this attitude or line of thinking. However, I’ve learned by experience that the past is a fun place to visit but it’s a bad place to live. Nothing new ever happens in the past. There’s no growth, improvement, or change. Our jobs, organizations, and industries are not the same as they were 20 years ago. We have to stay relevant with the times, personally and organizationally, or risk becoming relics of the past.

3. You’re pessimistic about the future. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic about the future, especially in today’s day and age. If your outlook on the future is dependent upon the performance of the stock market or the headline news, then you’re in trouble. The best leaders are dealers of hope. They maintain an optimistic view of the future, keeping focused on their purpose and core values, and putting forth a vision that encourages and energizes their team.

4. You’re focused on maintaining status quo. I’m not one to make a big stink about the difference between leadership and management. Leaders have to manage and managers have to lead. But there is one key difference that I think is worth noting—leaders initiate change whereas managers focus on maintaining or improving the status quo. Status quo leadership is often about looking in the rear-view mirror, making sure everything occurred exactly as planned. Forward-looking leadership involves surveying the open road and charting a course to move the team to its next destination. There will be occasional wrong turns, rerouting the course, and asking for directions. It will get messy and chaotic at times. But it will never be status quo.

5. You micromanage. Micro-managers tend to not trust people. Since trust involves risk, micro-managers default to using controlling behaviors to minimize their dependency on others. They want to maintain power so they hoard information, don’t involve others, and make all decisions of any consequence. Micro-managers tend to believe they know what’s best and will act in ways to keep themselves in the center of any conversation, meeting, or activities in order to exert their influence.

6. You spend more time assigning blame and making excuses than focusing on what you can control. Rear-view leaders are consumed with what others are doing or not doing, and almost always believe their lack of success is a result of factors outside their control. “If only Marketing would have provided us with the right kind of collateral that appealed to our clients…,” or “If Operations hadn’t delayed in getting that order into production…,” and “Customer Service does a horrible job at client retention…” are the kinds of blaming statements or excuses you often hear from rear-view leaders. Proactive leaders understand there will always be factors outside their control, so they spend their energy focusing on what they can influence and trust their colleagues to do the same.

7. You wait for someone to tell you what to do instead of taking the initiative. Failure to take initiative is a symptom of rear-view mirror leadership. Because rear-view mirror leaders are focused on the past, what others are doing or not doing, or focused on maintaining the status-quo, they are often caught watching from the sidelines when they should be actively involved in the game. Do you find yourself surprised by decisions that get made? Find yourself out of the information loop about what’s happening around you? If so, you might be sitting around waiting for someone to tell you what to do instead of taking the initiative. Find a need, meet a need. See a problem, fix a problem. That’s what forward-thinking leaders do.

8. You have a graveyard of relationships that are “dead to you.” It’s easy to run over people when you’re not looking where you’re going. Precisely because they’ve been leading by looking in the rear-view mirror, these kinds of leaders have often neglected to invest in relationships across the organization. They have “written off” people for one reason or another, usually in an attempt to exert power and influence to preserve their position and authority.

9. A lack of possibility thinking. If your first response to new ideas is to find all the ways it won’t work, you’re a rear-view mirror leader. Critical thinking and risk mitigation is necessary when considering a new concept, but if the ideas that come your way never make it past the initial sniff test, then you may be shutting yourself off to new possibilities. Instead of shooting holes in the ideas your team brings to you, try responding with this question: “How could we make this work?” You may be surprised at how much energy and passion it unleashes in your team.

10. You have an “us vs. them” mentality. Do you say “we” or “they” when referring to your organization and its leadership? Whether it’s done consciously or subconsciously, rear-view mirror leaders tend to disassociate themselves from the decisions and actions of their fellow leaders. Being a leader, particularly a senior or high-level one, means you represent the entire organization, not just your particular team. You should own the decisions and strategies of your organization by phrasing statements like “We have decided…” rather than “They have decided…” because it shows your team that you are personally invested and committed to your organization’s plans.

The grumpy Mercedes driver couldn’t see he had a wide-open road ahead of him to enjoy because he was too focused on what others were doing behind him. Don’t make the same mistake as a leader. If any of these ten signs ring true, you may be spending more time leading by looking through the rear-view mirror instead of the front windshield.

6 Ways Leaders Should Be Like Mothers

rosie the riveterMother’s Day 2017

Dear Leaders,

Today is a time we set aside to celebrate our mothers. Motherhood is often a thankless and tiring endeavor. It’s easy to take for granted the hard work, sacrifice, and love that moms contribute to our lives. So today we pause to appreciate the countless ways our mothers have positively influenced us and shaped us into the people we are today.

In many ways, moms are the ultimate picture of servant leadership in action. They always have the best interests of their children in mind and will go to great lengths to help them grow, develop, and succeed in life. They are able to harmonize the polarities of unconditional love and tough love, and do so in such a way that their children always know that mom has their back. Mothers are simply amazing leaders.

Using the acronym MOTHER, here are six ways leaders can improve their effectiveness by embodying the characteristics and behaviors of great mothers:

Mentor — What does a mentor do? A mentor shares the wisdom that has been gleaned from life experiences. Mentors offer advice, perspective, and guidance to help their mentee navigate their life or career journey. Sometimes that comes in the form of encouragement and other times as correction. Moms, and great leaders, are trusted mentors.

Objective — Moms have a unique ability to be objective in the way they treat their kids, and leaders should use the same approach with their team members. Moms love all of their children completely, yet uniquely. If love were able to be measured, a mom’s love would be complete, 100% for each child. And if love came in different colors, each child’s color would be unique: blue, red, purple, etc. Leaders should be completely objective with their followers, yet treat each one uniquely according to their needs and situation.

Trustworthy — It goes without saying that moms are trustworthy. Leaders should be no different. Trustworthiness is the foundation upon which successful leadership is built. Leaders should embody the four elements of trust: ability, believability, connectedness, and dependability. Above all else, team members should never have to doubt the trustworthiness of their leader. If you’re not sure if you’re building or eroding trust, check out this free e-book.

Helpful — Who stays up late to help their child complete a school project the night before it’s due? Who drives the team carpool all day on Saturdays to shuttle the kids between matches? Who does the laundry, cooks the meals, cleans the house, packs lunches, and plays nurse when the kids are sick? Mom, that’s who! (Yes, sometimes Dad too, but I’ll save that for a Father’s Day article.) Mom is always there to help, no matter how big or small the need. The best leaders do the same. Their team members know they can approach the leader with any question or need, no matter how trivial, and the leader will welcome the opportunity to provide assistance.

Encouraging — Moms are awesome cheerleaders. They are always looking for opportunities to cheer on their kids to be the best they can be. Excellent leaders are constantly looking for ways to bring out the best in their people. It can be as simple as spending a few minutes to build rapport with a team member by talking about their mutual interests outside of work, or it could be something as big as publicly recognizing a team member in front of his/her peers. Regardless of the action, great leaders look for ways to encourage their followers.

Responsible — Moms are the role models of dependable and responsible leadership. If moms say they are going to do something, they do it. They can always be counted on to fulfill their end of the bargain. Shouldn’t workplace leaders do the same? Employees crave leaders who demonstrate responsibility. They want to know their leader takes their obligations seriously and will follow through on their commitments. If leaders want responsible team members, they need to walk the talk and show what responsibility looks like.

Not everyone’s mother has been a great role model of leadership. Mothers, just like all other kinds of leaders, aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. They fail. They disappoint. We can learn from those experiences too, even if it’s as basic as what not to do as a leader.

The best mothers illustrate what great leadership looks like. They act as mentors, are objective in dealing with people, are trustworthy, helpful, encouraging, and responsible. Anyone in a leadership role would be wise to lead a little more like mom.

Happy Mother’s Day!

%d bloggers like this: