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Why About 70 Percent of Leaders are Afraid to Talk With Their Employees (And What You Can Do About It)

Don’t let fear keep you from having those hard conversations. Here are four practices to make it easier on yourself and the people who report to you

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BY Steve Farber - 07 Mar 2018

Why About 70 Percent of Leaders are Afraid to Talk With Their Employees (And What You Can Do About It)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A few months ago, my wife and I moved from a 3,200-square-foot suburban home to an 1,800-square-foot condo in the Little Italy area of downtown San Diego. Making the decision to downsize wasn't easy, and, as you might expect, it required several conversations that had the potential to make one or both of us uncomfortable. But here's what made it much easier: We love each other.

That powerful ingredient often is missing in the relationships between leaders and their employees, and it ends up making conversations unnecessarily difficult and uncomfortable for both parties.

Most of us know that employees can find it hard to talk to their bosses, but here's what might surprise you: Most bosses also are afraid to talk to their employees. In fact, an online survey by Harris Poll found that 69 percent of managers say they often are uncomfortable communicating with employees.

It's one thing to feel uncomfortable giving bad news or constructive feedback, but this survey indicates a general unease among managers when it comes to communicating with the people on their team. That not only makes feedback difficult, but all conversations become less productive.

So, how does love solve this? Because to love someone, you have to know them. And if you know them -- really know them -- then it becomes easier to have conversations, even conversations that are difficult.

Now, I don't expect you to love your employees in the same way that I love my wife. After all, she's my wife! But there's no reason you can't get to know your employees in much the same way as you get to know the people you love in your personal life. In fact, there's every reason that you should.

But here's the ironic twist: To make hard conversations easier and less uncomfortable, you have to do some hard work that will make you uncomfortable. The results, however, are worth it. And if you don't believe me -- or even if you do -- then pick one or two of your direct reports, and give this process a try:

1. Take a relational inventory.

Before you try to learn more about someone, figure out what you already know. Actually write down a list in your journal, on a notecard, or in whatever form works best for you. Start with work-related things like the person's role with the organization and professional background. Then list everything you know about him or her as a person -- spouse, kids, big life events (celebrations or tragedies), cultural and faith background, hobbies, favorite travel experiences, most-beloved movies ... You get the idea.

2. Budget "what-up?" time.

The day-to-day course of business often becomes all business. We meet with a purpose, and that purpose tends to involve the tactics and strategies of our work. So, we have to be intentional about including time to discuss other aspects of life. That can include 5-10 minutes on the front end of business discussions and "drive-by" conversations at someone's desk, but it also should include a few meetings with no purpose other than to spend 30 minutes or so talking about life in general.

3. Give your attention not your advice.

Many leaders are born problem-solvers. It's hard to listen to someone and not immediately offer solutions to whatever challenges they face. Problem-solving, at most, should be a secondary outcome of these conversations.

Ask open-ended questions about a person's life and dreams, and then listen and show genuine interest and appreciation. If they ask for a solution, offer it. Otherwise, you might ask for an invention with something like, "I have some ideas about that, would you like to hear them?"

4. Store the info, serve the person.

People usually will appreciate that fact that you cared enough to ask these types of questions and that you listened to their answers, but that's really not enough to deepen a relationship. You have to remember what you learned and use it -- not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others (which will ultimately benefit you, as well).

The more you learn about a person, the better positioned you'll be to encourage him or her, to ask follow-up questions, and to genuinely and helpfully serve that person's deepest needs in practical ways. When you do, they will know you care.

None of this, mind you, will eliminate life's hard conversations. But it will strengthen your relationship so that you and the other person enter those conversation with a strong foundation, a mutual respect, and with information to help navigate the challenges you're facing. Routine conversations become natural and challenging conversations become something to work through in love, not something to dread or avoid.

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