One of our grievances as coaches is how few managers and leaders are prepared to have difficult conversations with staff about behaviour or performance. We initially suspected it was about lack of skill in having these conversations, but even as many organisations have rolled out training programs in recent years, the rate at which managers have difficult conversations does not appear to have increased from what we see. So we had to delve deeper to understand why having courageous conversations is such a big problem for most managers.

The first thing to know is that there is a cultural dimension to this question. Australians are more relationship oriented than our British and American peers. In terms of the DISC personality profile we score slightly higher on S (supportive) and lower on D (directive). In terms of the Big-5 personality profile we score higher on Agreeableness. Irrespective which measure you prefer, in Australia our culture values trust and relationships and hence shies away from anything we perceive as ‘conflict’. We even had a national discussion not too long ago whether there should be a reference to ‘mateship’ in the preamble of our constitution! So culturally we find it difficult to start a conversation that can and will likely lead to disagreement and therefore conflict. But that’s only part of the story.

The bigger problem starts with a number of perception biases and errors that underpin our judgement about other people. In the first instance, the vast majority of us think that we are above average, that is better than others. Whether that’s leadership or driving skills, it doesn’t matter. Our self-serving bias means that we are convinced that we are brilliant (in a recent survey 25% of students believed they are in the top 1%) and everyone else is like, normal. This does not mean that we make poor judgements about others, quite the opposite. But it does mean that we overestimate our own abilities. That is not a good basis for any coaching conversation, as our ego will get triggered should the person point out our own flaws to deflect attention from their behaviour. We know this intuitively and it is a contributing factor why many of us avoid difficult conversations. We also agonise if having tough conversations may make us look bad (in our own mind), a common self-perception error.

Yet it get worse. We all share flaw in evaluating another person’s behaviour that is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error in social psychology. We routinely underestimate the influence of the situation or context on a person’s behaviour and instead focus our attention on the person’s traits and attitudes. More worryingly, we still do this even if we caused the situation the person is largely responding to! This is particularly relevant in the context of having difficult conversations. By the time we plug up the courage to have the conversation we have generally already attributed the inappropriate behaviour or poor performance to the person’s imagined character flaws or lack of competence. This means we will likely enter the conversation with the wrong assumptions and our ego will get particularly bruised if it turns out that, for example, it was our inability to prioritise the work we handed out (“It’s all top priority!”) that led to the person’s poor performance in the first place. One or two such experiences will make us think twice before we have another difficult conversation.

Further, once we have made judgements about the person’s character and attitude, the confirmation bias kicks in to make sure that we are right. So we stop seeing any evidence that contradicts our assumptions. In addition, we indulge in the fantasy that the other person is fully aware of the behaviour in question (and therefore they probably only engage in the behaviour to make our life as a manager miserable). This again is the result of the fact that we see another person’s behaviour from a different perspective than how we see ourselves – back to the self-serving bias. If I engage in inappropriate behaviour I will find a way of externalising the cause so that it is not my fault (at least in my mind). This shifts my awareness away from me and my behaviour onto the perceived cause. The culmination of this effect are statements like ‘the pedestrian hit my car’ – which have indeed been made by drivers!

Taking these effects together means that without detailed preparation the conversation is highly unlikely to go the way we imagined, even if we had training about how to broach a difficult subject and how to deal with resistance to negative feedback. The starting point is usually too far off the mark to lead to a successful outcome. So after a few attempts most managers probably decide the problem is not worth the pain and in any case most inappropriate behaviour ‘mysteriously’ stops after some time anyway (usually because the situation changes) or they change job or you get promoted etc. The former Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, was famous for his ability to ignore problems until they ‘went away’.

On the flip side it turns out that if you know how all of this works having difficult conversations becomes surprisingly easy. All you need to do is learn suspend your assumptions and judgements for the duration of the conversation. Further, you need to learn to exclusively focus on specific, observable behaviours and you need to park your ego before you go into the conversation. The latter is hard for some people, but nothing that can’t be overcome with the help of a few tools and the determination to succeed. Make sure you download our handy 2-page tool for individual behaviour change from our Download page.