The Courage to Change the Conversation

Shane is a leader known for turning poor performers into productive team members. After taking on a new role he was given Beth. Beth is the kind of employee who toggles between meets expectations and underperforming. Every time Shane thinks she is starting to turn a corner he will get feedback from a peer or a customer that Beth has disappointed them again. Shane, who is not only a creative problem solver but also a kind hearted and emotionally intelligent leader, has isolated her from large tasks assigned to her role and has changed the scope and environment in which she operates so that he can mitigate her ineffectiveness and continue development efforts. But all of this has fallen short of any real tangible results. Once highly effective at developing team members, Shane has begun to question his own abilities as a leader.

When I asked Shane to tell me about how Beth came to his team he told me that his boss had asked him to rehabilitate her because he had failed to get results and was hoping Shane would have a different outcome. When I asked Shane’s boss about how Beth came to his team he said that his boss, the CFO, had requested that he bring her on his team because she had been struggling on another team. It seems Beth not only toggles well but she is masterful at dancing from one team to another. To Beth’s credit, she was not really provided clarity about her performance. Each time she was moved she was given a diluted message or one that largely avoided facts. The first time she was told that her strengths would be better leveraged in a different role that was not customer facing. When she failed there she was told she would be more successful assisting another team. Beth has been buffered from some of the most valid and useful information available. So how does Shane provide feedback in a way that gives her honest insight into her actual performance in a way she can hear it?

An example of a different conversation with Beth:


Shane: Beth, I’m not sure you’ve been given all the facts about your performance in the past. I think largely in an effort to protect you, we’ve failed you by not giving you honest feedback. I’d like to share some of what I’m seeing now that I think will help you. Are you open to hearing what I have to say?

(Beth accepts)

Shane: In the past you’ve struggled with consistently meeting expectations. You’ll hit a deadline or meet a commitment once, maybe even twice, then fall back into a pattern of missing deadlines and commitments. As a result, I can’t be sure I know whether I can count on you to come through on the next commitment. Others who are interdependent on you to deliver on their commitments feel similar and continue to share their disappointment with me.

Shane: I’d like to know how you see this situation?


This kind of dialogue has the potential to constructively guide Beth’s perceptions of herself and her behavior.  The ability to change performance comes from the courage to change the conversation.

What does it mean to Change the Conversation?

Say what you mean rather than what is easier for the other person to hear


Say what you mean rather than what is easier for you to say.

How do you know if you, your team or your organization needs to Change the Conversation?

As a team you talk about one thing but really you want to say something else.


As a team you say one thing but mean something else.

The Conversation Trifecta:

Shane and Beth’s situation is hardly unique. The most difficult feedback to give is usually the most necessary to hear and yet it largely goes undelivered. This is what I call the conversation trifecta.

The skills needed to change the conversation are usually the most underdeveloped, leaders responsible for delivering the feedback lack the willingness or motivation to do it, and the environment around them unknowingly promotes the path of avoidance and dilution.

Skill: Change the conversation by learning the skills necessary to say the tough stuff.

Will: Change the conversation by embracing possibilities rather than avoiding the pain.


Change the conversation by setting clear expectations about honest and open communication in your working environment.

Are you a leader who is courageous enough to change the conversation in your organization?

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