Mark Murphy / Leadership IQ Blog
It's become a truism that leaders must have difficult conversations. But that's very bad advice. I've found, for example, that many of the best leaders actually AVOID difficult conversations because they've mastered a technique for using "pre-commitments" that preempt difficult conversations before they ever become necessary!
Watch the video to learn more! And afterward, check out our 2-day leadership training called WHAT GREAT MANAGERS DO DIFFERENTLY to master this technique hands-on!
Now take the next step and master this technique for preempting difficult conversations at our special 2-day leadership training!
Hi, Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ and even though I wrote a book on the science of delivering tough messages and having difficult conversations and I wrote a New York Times bestseller on challenging people and pushing them, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I don't love having difficult conversations. Why? Well, for starters, they're difficult. If they were fun conversations, we'd call them fun conversation but they're not. They're difficult and maybe you're like me and you've had those conversations where you can actually feel that sweat going down the back of your neck because the conversation is so stressful.
Sometimes, it's not that the conversation itself is incredibly painful but it's amazingly time-consuming. It can take hours to prepare to have a difficult conversation. I can lose half a day of productivity just thinking about running through scripts, rehearsing, preparing for this difficult conversation and if I don't prepare, well then certainly I'm going to get that sweat down the back of the neck because this conversation is going to be incredibly painful. Turns out I'm not alone in wanting to avoid difficult conversations. We actually did a study at Leadership IQ, asked several thousand people, "Have you ever avoided a conversation with an employee?" 8 out of 10 managers said, "Yeah, I have avoided a conversation with an employee because I was afraid of how they were going to react."
Here's the interesting thing though. When we look at people wanting to avoid difficult conversations and count me among them, the reality is it's not your fault. It's not my fault. It took me years of study to figure out that you know what? There's actually a way to avoid difficult conversations in the first place. Are there going to be times where maybe everything else we tried doesn't work and we still have to have that difficult conversation? Yeah, there are going to be a few of those but 9 out of 10 difficult conversations can be avoided if we use this technique that I'm about to show you. It's just that nobody's ever taught this technique before. Nobody has ever taught us, if we do this, we might be able to nip in the bud, all of those conversations that keep us up at night and cause us amazing amounts of stress.
The technique is called word pictures. Word pictures are, simply put, a way of setting expectations with our employees, of defining for them what needs work or bad work looks like, what good work looks like and what great work looks like so that if we can get them to pre-commit, that's the magic sauce here. If we get them to pre-commit to these expectations, we get to nip in the bud, all of those difficult conversations down the road. I don't want to wait for months for somebody to do a poor job on a particular project and then have to go and say to them, "Well, you know, you weren't accountable enough on that project." "Well, I was accountable." "Well, not according to my definition." "Well, you never told me what your definition is."
I don't want to do any of that. What I want to do is before that project even starts, get them to pre-commit to a set of expectations so that if something does go wrong and it's a lot less likely to. But, if something does go wrong, I can simply pull out our word picture and say, "Do you remember a couple of months ago we had that conversation? Let's take a look at this."
Now, what are we going to get them to pre-commit to? Well, let me give you a real life example. Let's say I want to get in my employees to pre-commit to being more accountable. Well, first thing I have to do is sit down with them and actually define what accountability means. So, maybe we sit down together, we have a conversation and we come up with the idea that, well, you know what? Not being accountable, bad work on accountability needs work as we like to call it, on accountability is if we implement some new changes. Let's say we're going through some big technology overhaul. If we implement some new changes, if you fight the changes, talk about how much you like the old software better than the new software, resist it and fight me every step of the way, let's call that bad.
Let's just agree, right now, you and I, that that's bad accountability. All right, if that's bad, what's good accountability? What could we pre-commit to as being good accountability? Well, maybe, good accountability is that when we're in these task fore meetings about the new software, you actually support the change, you actually say, without sarcasm in your voice, "I'm on board." Maybe, you volunteer to help move projects along. Maybe, you volunteer to do some beta testing, whatever the activities are that I want you to pre-commit to. But now, that's just good. What is great? Because I want to set a bar here for you that enables you to become an absolute superstar.
So, maybe, together, we pre-commit to the idea that well, if bad is you fight me on the change initiatives, good is you support them and actually volunteer to help move the project along, maybe great is not only do you support it yourself but if you see others on the team being negative, you jump in and you help them to not be negative. Well, we could pre-commit to a whole bunch of stuff. Maybe we pick another bad behavior that we can both agree to ahead of time, this is a bad behavior. So, maybe we pre-commit to the idea that if there's a breakdown or something goes wrong on the team, that bad would be, I finger-point, I blame others, I throw my colleagues under the bus.
Well, I didn't get the project done because Bob in accounting is so stupid. All right, let's just pre-commit that that's a bad thing to do. Well, if that's bad, what would good be? What would good look like? Well, maybe good is if something goes wrong, we just own it and say, "You know what? My bad. That one's one me. I'm not going to throw anybody else under the bus. I'm going to take ownership for every piece I can possibly take ownership of here." And if that's good, what would great be?
Well, maybe, if I see other people throwing their colleagues under the bus and blaming others, maybe I jump in and I redirect those conversations. I can get people to, if I sit down and talk with them, I can get them to pre-commit to any number of behaviors. The idea here is simply that rather than sitting around and waiting months for people's behavior to take a left turn, to go south, for them to screw something up, I want to pre-commit ahead of time. I want to say, "Listen, I'm not anticipating that anybody's going to mess up but let's just create a word picture together before we start this big project and let's agree that these are what bad behaviors look like. These are what good behaviors look like and if you really want to be a superstar, this is what great behaviors looks like.
And if we can come to agreement on that, if we can both pre-commit that this is what accountability looks like or having a positive attitude or great customer service or being accurate in our work or being efficient and productive or whatever it is we want to get people to pre-commit to." If I get them to pre-commit to these activities before this all starts, I get to avoid having the difficult conversation and I'm not being avoidant in the sense that I'm scared of having the conversation and I'm shirking my managerial responsibility. I get to avoid the conversation because I have solved all my performance problems with any employee ahead of time. I don't have to wait for it to go wrong.
Now, the interesting thing about this is that if you come to our two-day management seminar called What Great Managers Do Differently?, I'm not only going to show you how to create your own word pictures, I'm going to give you a set of word pictures to get you started. When organizations come to us and we have trained some amazing organizations on word pictures. We've trained Caesar's Palace, the United Nations, Hewlett Packard Enterprise. We've trained companies on word pictures around the world. I'm going to share with you some of the best word pictures. Companies pay us tens of thousands of dollars to come in and create word pictures and nip these terrible conversations in the bud so that they don't have to have them anymore. If you come to our two-day Great Managers seminar, you're actually going to get a set of word pictures right in the program to take back with you and get yourself started on this.
Not only is this going to help you but this is going to help the rest of your team as well. So, check out our upcoming seminar, What Great Managers Do Differently. We're going to begin the program by showing you how to really master word pictures, how to get rid of most of your difficult conversations. Now, if you'll occasionally stumble across a true negative blamer, narcissist, et cetera, well, I'm going to show you how to deal with those as well. But, what I want to make clear here is that if you get people to pre-commit to performance issues, to expectations ahead of time, guess what? We don't have to stay up at night, thinking about difficult conversations anymore. We can solve performance issues without having to do that.
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