When was the last difficult conversation you had with your peers or your supervisor? What was the outcome of raising issues? Did it go as planned? What were some barriers? How did it impact your work?

Keep those questions in mind as we explore the inherent challenges of raising difficult but important issues. These challenges can be organized into three categories:

  • Mindset: Individuals don’t want to be labelled as “busy-bodies,” looking into business beyond their area. Many people harbor thoughts such as, “What’s in it for me? It would not be heard seriously, and it would mean more work for the entire team.”
  • Culture: Employees often fear repercussions, particularly when stakes are high for their leader and themselves. Another cultural issue – “face-saving” – involves the reputation of the team and its leader. The hierarchical distance in the chain of command can also affect the way individuals operate.
  • Leadership: There can be a lack of self-awareness and a belief that staff should take the onus of raising those difficult issues to their leaders and managers. Unfortunately, even given an environment where speaking up is meant to be safe, some leaders have a propensity to maintain the status quo rather than following up with necessary but drastic actions.

Leaving these challenges are unresolved will lead to undesirable outcomes that permeate the entire organization and will affect employee engagement, productivity and the bottom line.

How can employees successfully raise those difficult issues through critical conversations with their managers or leaders? Here are some principles of effective critical conversation:

  • Be authentic. Sugarcoating the problems during the discussion creates confusion.
  • Be intentional. Stay objective and issue-focused with relevant facts and examples.
  • Take the initiative. Provide suggestions to resolve the issue.
  • Link the issue to possible consequences.

Managers and leaders also need to play their part in making these critical conversations successful by:

  • Exercising deep empathy
  • Leveraging teachable moments to learn together to improve as a team
  • Being receptive and keeping an open mind
  • “Walking their talk” by aligning their words and their actions
  • Being forward-looking – exploring sustainable resolutions and improvements

Managers and leaders can also adopt the following practices that will make raising difficult issues a less daunting experience for any employee:

  • Establish clear expectations. Let employees know that when they have any insights or issues, they can freely share them in a respectful and constructive way.
  • Organize regular network sessions. One approach is to adopt a “speed-dating” format to engage employees and their supervisors in sharing and communicating interactively. The aim is to provide a platform that develops a shared communication culture.
  • Integrate shared problem-solving in each meeting. The first few sessions may be awkward, and team members may struggle to grasp the practice of solving challenges. When a defined process is normalized, team members will become less defensive and dismissive of others’ views, and the team can work closer to have continued successful outcomes.
  • Recognize employees’ contributions. Let employees know that their efforts to raise issues are valued. Take prompt actions to follow up with them.
  • Implement trust-supporting mechanisms. Adopt an open door policy, make resources accessible for conversations, and encourage timely and constructive feedback.

The critical conversations process:

  • Brings clarity to the situation and puts the team on the same page
  • Fosters mutual understanding
  • Reduces and minimizes misunderstandings that may snowball into a crisis
  • Develops employee confidence in handling challenging tasks
  • Improves overall team performance and more sustained productivity
  • Grows a culture of trust over time
  • Creates a lasting habit that drives performance

The Take-Away

Moving forward, managers and leaders should actively seek out tools and channels that encourage a safe environment for employees to raise issues, together with productive feedback. Nurturing the habit of using critical conversations as an integral way to raise issues can unlock insights and a wealth of solutions that transform the entire business.