If you knew the bathroom sink was clogged, would you brush your teeth first or try to clear the drain?
It’s common sense to focus on the latter (exempting teenagers of course), to clear the path rather than making for an even messier cleanup. And yet, when we attempt to have hard conversations with our colleagues, we tend to do the exact opposite. (Not to mention conversations in our intimate and family relationships.)
But, what if hard conversations aren’t actually hard at all — but rather, they seem hard because we're brushing our teeth over a clogged drain?
Here's what I mean:
Amelia leads a customer service team of eight people. Things have been running more or less smoothly, but she’s noticed an uptick in the complaints about her team member Kevin. He’s okay at the technical parts of his job, better than average even... but Kevin never steps up to take on the extra work that falls to other members of the team from time to time.
Amelia has talked with him about it several times before. She’s reminded him that teamwork is one of the company values (he nods but nothing changes). She’s pointed out opportunities for him to stretch (he nods but nothing changes). She’s offered to help countless times, letting him know she’s there to help. “How can we solve this?" she asks.
If you imagine yourself as a fly on the wall in the room with Amelia and Kevin, what do you see? What’s happening in this relationship?
Here are some of the things I notice in this situation ...
- Amelia seems to be doing all the work here.
- Amelia seems to want Kevin to change more than Kevin wants to change.
- Amelia seems to be offering support, but Kevin, for whatever reason, isn’t taking her up on it.
These dynamics between Kevin and Amelia are the clogs in the drain that make hard conversations feel hard. That’s “how it is” until it’s not. But now Amelia has a choice: She can repeat her attempts at feedback or support using the same methods (i.e., trying to push some water down the clogged drain) or she can pause, and take a moment to try and unclog it.
How can she move the stuck conversation forward? How about this:
“Kevin, I’m not sure why this is happening … but I feel like I’m doing too much of the work here. I’ve raised this issue around not chipping in like your teammates do. I’ve tried to point a few opportunities for you to challenge yourself there, but I haven’t seen you take advantage of any of them. What I’m saying is, I feel like I want you to change more than you seem to want to. Do you have a sense of what I’m talking about?”
Now, depending upon your experience, you might say that’s a hard or awkward conversation. Is It? Is it any harder, more frustrating, or more irritating than repeating the same feedback or conversation — only to watch nothing change and get even more complaints from Kevin’s teammates?
What’s more likely to lead to a moment of honest self-assessment from Kevin: Repeating the same feedback or naming, in a spirit of openness and curiosity, that that feedback doesn’t seem to be working?”
Which approach is more transparent, more vulnerable, more authentic?
The dialogue about how the people on your team are showing up for one another apart from their technical role is both the gap and the gift that you as a manager should lean into for the benefit of your teammate, your organization, and not at all lastly, your personal well-being.
The soft skills renaissance is upon us.