Why having courageous conversations at work will boost business innovation

There can be no doubt that today’s working environments are both complex and demanding. Fuelled by our increasing appetite for innovation, our reliance on digital solutions, coupled with the fast paced and disruptive nature of global business, everyone is under constant pressure to produce – and quickly.

With this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that research is exposing a weakness in modern business leadership and management: the acute inability to have difficult conversations with colleagues and employees.

Indeed, according to an article in Coaching at Work, 2018, a whopping 90% of managers and leaders do not address poor performance or difficult behaviour effectively. Of these 90%, 70% are either unable or unwilling to have the courageous conversation needed to address the issue. When delving even more deeply, the research found that 20% of managers and leaders are unable to have the conversation without using an aggressive style, while only 10% are actually having conversations with clarity, purpose and a style that engages rather than blames or shames the other.

Although it would be easy to simply point the finger at overburdened leaders and extremely stressful business ecosystems (particularly in the South African context right now), there are deeper and more fundamental reasons why these tough conversations are being avoided. And if you’re squirming in your seat right now (and grasping for an excuse to stop reading), chances are that this is something that really needs to be addressed for both personal, professional and economic development.

Vulnerability: the gateway to courage

Both at work and at home, most of us fiercely avoid hard conversations because they make us feel deeply awkward and uncomfortable. Indeed, the thorny and sensitive nature of these conversations goes to the very heart of vulnerability – the emotion we all experience during times of uncertainty, risky or emotional exposure. Naturally, the sudden (and unwelcome) emergence of vulnerability brings up feelings of resistance, which are most often speedily acted upon through blatant avoidance, tapping out or defensive armouring up behaviours.

To stop this cycle, it is imperative that we lean into the discomfort of vulnerability and step into courage – the ability to feel both brave and afraid at the exact same time. Plus we need to debunk several myths around vulnerability – which is nearly always perceived as weakness. In fact, vulnerability is the gateway to courage, connection, accountability, innovation, resilience and even creativity. The kicker is that we all want to be brave…but none of us want to feel vulnerable. Yet you can’t get to courage without wrestling with vulnerability.

Crippling growth & innovation

While it may seem strange to be talking about vulnerability and avoidant behaviours at a time when many South African businesses are in survival mode, it is in fact a critical time to be addressing the issue – primarily because this avoidance is inhibiting workplace productivity and innovation.

How so? In the local context, for example, leaders and employees alike are opting out of vital conversations about accountability, ethics, diversity, gender and inclusion, because people fear looking wrong, saying something wrong or being wrong. These are perhaps the vulnerable conversations to have and bring up a lot of vulnerability, anxiety and fear in people – and yet the more we prioritise comfort over courage in these conversations, the more we perpetuate the cycle of privilege, silence and shame.

Speaking more generally, when difficult conversations are avoided in the workplace (around performance, the termination of contracts, possible retrenchments, etc), the symptoms that emerge are called ‘moods of resentment’ (frustration) and/or resignation (giving up and checking out because there’s no point).

Increasingly, in these cultures you see a lack of participation and robust debate in meetings – and instead you see many forms of back-channelling (a broad range of behaviours that all share in common not being direct or upfront with people) – the most popular being the meeting that happens after the meeting’ and the dirty yes.

The result? Not only do these behaviours lead to toxic cultures, they also cripple innovation and creativity within businesses. If no one feels that it is psychologically safe to speak up, to question or to debate an alternative approach, they shut down or go into transactional, compliant, do-as-you-say mode and the best you’ll get is group think or status quo behaviours. Or, if they feel that mistakes aren’t tolerated (and are even career limiting), very few will be willing to take on new ‘transformational’ projects.

Embrace daring leadership

Fortunately, there are clear pathways and steps to take for leaders and managers who are ready to address these behaviours and to begin having those tough (but important) conversations. First and foremost, this requires embracing the principles of daring leadership: whereby hard conversations are clear, kind and respectful; bold ideas and opinions can be raised and debated to get a diversity of views on the table to shift group think and truly allow for innovation; and mistakes, setbacks and failures are expected and learned from. Importantly, such leadership promotes a culture whereby boundaries and values are clearly articulated – and there’s a true, authentic sense of belonging and inclusivity.

Sidebar: 6 ways to prepare for a hard conversation

  1. Get your head, heart and body ready for a conversation aimed at curiosity, compassion, connection and learning (rather than gearing up for a win-lose battle).
  2. Own your 5% (or more) contribution to whatever has happened.
  3. Write down key points in preparation – not a script.
  4. Become present to your inner state and start by breathing, in order to speak from a more centred versus defended (armoured) part of yourself.
  5. Sit in a way that demonstrates ‘I’m open’ (arms/legs/ankles unfolded and soft eyes).
  6. Lean into the discomfort of the conversation no matter what comes up – get really curious about what is being said and felt, slow the conversation down, ask questions and when it becomes really tough ask for a time out and circle back later.

Julia Kerr Henkel is a founder of Lumminos.

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