Managing Tough Business Conversations


The CEO of a retail chain wanted his leadership team to learn how to have tough conversations. Too many issues were being buried, he said. Team members needed to bring their issues to the table and learn how to resolve them. He asked me to design a three-hour team-building workshop.

I began the workshop by asking the team to develop a set of operating principles. Here’s what they came up with:

  1. Our first responsibility is to the success of the entire organization, not to our own departments.
  2. We are responsible for helping one another achieve important organizational goals. That is how we can be most effective as a team.
  3. As team members, we need to view each other as supports, not threats.
  4. As team members, we have a right to hear first from each other about issues that affect us, not second-hand or via the “grapevine.”
  5. Since we have a responsibility to help each other, we must bring tough issues to the table and discuss them with each other.
  6. When discussing difficult topics, we need to tackle the issue, not each other.
  7. We have a responsibility to ask questions first before we reach conclusions.

After they developed these principles, I introduced them to the GROW model of productive conversation (first described by John Whitmore in his book “Coaching for Performance” ). In a nutshell, the GROW model says that productive conversations follow this sequence: first, we need to understand the Goal (both of the current discussion and the long-range goal), then the current Reality, then our Options, and finally what we Will do next and when.

Once the team understood the model, I asked them to practice it on two current, tough issues. The CTO immediately raised an issue that no one was aware of – but that affected the entire organization. Off they went! Then the CFO raised a second issue dealing with financial statements. Again, the discussion was electrifying. In each case the team followed the GROW model. After experiencing these two discussions, the team added three more operating principles:

  1. Our meetings must have an agenda and a facilitator.
  2. We keep a record of our action items and hold each other accountable.
  3. No interruptions – we honor this work as our highest priority.

Afterwards, people raved about the quality of the teamwork. As one person said: “There are a lot of conversations we need to have now!”

David Pogue, the New York Times columnist, writes in Scientific American this month about the “hostile media effect.” This is a cognitive phenomenon where people who hold strong opinions about something perceive that media coverage of that topic is prejudiced, no matter how neutral the coverage actually is.

The same phenomenon happens in groups. People who hold strong opinions about something perceive that anyone who asks questions is biased against them, regardless of how neutral or innocent the questions are.

I saw it in action this week during a meeting of the executive team of a health care company. Ten people gathered in a large conference room overlooking San Francisco to discuss the strategic issues faced by the organization. I asked each person to reflect on these questions: “How is the health care environment changing in California? What are the most important opportunities for the company? What should be our priorities over the next year?”

For the most part, the ensuring conversation was excellent. One team member talked about the “triple transformation:” the realignment of state government, health care reform, and the emergence of community care organizations. Another said she was worried about trends in work force development and the growing need for people with expertise in integrated care. Yet another talked about the importance of marketing services to public agencies.

Then Michelle spoke. She was vice president of marketing, new to the management team. She started by saying: “In my old job, this would be called channel management.” Eyes turned to her. “In a dynamic environment, we need to look at each customer segment and provide a unique value proposition.“

A team member asked: “Can you give us some specific examples?”

“You’re missing my point,” Michelle said. “We need to think more like a business.”

“In what ways?” said the team member.

“We need to be more business-like with our customers. We assume our customers will be there tomorrow, when that’s not necessarily true.”

There was an awkward silence. I could feel the tension ratcheting up in the room. “Which customers are you referring to?” she was asked.

“All of them,” Michelle said. “It should be obvious.” She stared defiantly at her inquisitor.

After the meeting, the CEO asked for my impressions. “I thought it was a good, productive discussion,” I replied. “With one exception.”

“Are you referring to Michelle?” he asked. “That was classic. There should be a name for what she did.”

“There already is,” I replied. “It’s called the hostile media effect. She’s highly opinionated and perceives innocent questions as hostile to her.”

“Is it curable?”

“Only in cases where you can get them to eat a large piece of humble pie!”

Learn the habits of high performing organizations in my new book “The Leadership Equation”  which you can preview on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Equation-Innovation-Performing-Organizations/dp/1626340889/

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