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Lynda Shaw PhD

Neuroscience Professional Development Programmes

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Seven ways to handle tough conversations with senior leaders

Avoiding having ‘That Conversation’ with a leader at work will only make things more uncomfortable. It’s time to dive right in.
why_its_difficult_to_speak_to_leaders_about_issues

With only 46% of employees agreeing that their organisation has effective procedures in place for resolving interpersonal conflict, it can be largely up to individuals to find ways to overcome problems at work. 

Individuals who feel there is a lack of psychological safety at work are unlikely to feel comfortable speaking up or expressing their opinions. 

It can also be tricky to raise concerns about leaders to HR who also might fear for their own positions meaning they struggle to find a consensus and activate change.  

Positive and open relationships are crucial

Power imbalances, fear of negative evaluation and communication barriers all play into the hands of an inability to communicate to leaders.

With 86% of employees reporting the main driver of satisfaction of their interpersonal relationship at work is with management, maintaining positive and open relationships is crucial to employee satisfaction.  

Aside from feeling uncomfortable, there are psychological and neurological explanations for that pit in your stomach when you know you need to have a tricky conversation.

The psychology

Our primary objective is to reduce the mental burden on our minds or cognitive load. 

We naturally desire optimal brain functioning, so why would we willingly engage in challenging discussions that may drain us, create pressure, and necessitate a careful examination of language requirements, sensitivities, and social protocols? 

As humans, we possess evolved cognitive abilities that enable us to connect with others, despite our differences. 

Our social brain functions have evolved to facilitate connections with others. However, we perceive difficult social situations as mentally taxing, leading us to avoid them. If we have had a negative experience at work bringing up difficult concerns, it can limit our ability to overcome other issues in the future.

In resolving conflicts or addressing issues, establishing rules for engagement can alleviate the cognitive load. 

This includes active listening, taking turns to speak, and attempting to reframe potentially difficult situations which increase the likelihood of successful conversations and can build trust for future conversations and in the relationship.  

There are psychological and neurological explanations for that pit in your stomach when you know you need to have a tricky conversation

The neuroscience

In addition, neuroscience significantly contributes to our reluctance to engage in challenging conversations. 

To handle the cognitive demands of formulating and implementing discourse strategies, we activate multiple neural systems. 

When we encounter fear or anxiety, serotonin and dopamine will be diminished and our brains respond by releasing elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol, a hormone that impairs the thinking centre of our brains. 

We become stressed and stuck in the sympathetic nervous system or fight, freeze or flight mode. 

The converse impacts of cortisol

As a result, we exhibit behaviours such as being more reactive and sensitive, we may think less clearly, our brains start working overtime, our emotions get heightened, we find it harder to regulate our thoughts and feelings, we may sleep poorly, and may perceive greater judgement and negativity than may actually be present. 

The impact of a cortisol release can affect the body for longer than we realise, which means we are more likely to ruminate and stay anxious which will in turn affect future behaviours. 

Conversely, positive comments and conversations produce oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that activates networks in our prefrontal cortex and enhances our capacity to collaborate, communicate effectively, empathise with others and develop trust.

If we have had a negative experience at work bringing up difficult concerns, it can limit our ability to overcome other issues in the future

Tips on how to have difficult conversations with leaders

1. Is the conversation needed?

Ask yourself if you need to have this conversation, what appropriate outcome you want and why you are avoiding it.

Evaluate your reasons and accept that how they see the situation may be different to how you do.  

Be cognisant that the brain doesn’t do gaps so it tries to find information to fill the holes by choosing information that suits, according to your biases and perception.  

Have a goal in mind. Be clear and specific in what you want to accomplish going into the conversation to keep you on track.  

Plan a little, take a deep breath and present yourself in a calm manner.

2. Enter into the meeting with a positive mindset

Go prepared and describe the changes you would like to suggest, rather than simply complaining about the problem. Leaders love to hear of solutions. 

Aim to have reached an amicable conclusion by the end of the meeting. 

When you have an anticipated good outcome then dopamine will be fired, your brain chemicals will work for you, not against you and you are likely to perform better and have a better demeanour.   

3. Maintain control of your emotions

Maintaining a calm and composed demeanour can help maintain a productive dialogue and keep things professional. 

Try to park any emotionally charged feelings. If you feel uncertain or anxious, start by acknowledging you may need to understand better. 

When you have an anticipated good outcome then dopamine will be fired, your brain chemicals will work for you, not against you and you are likely to perform better and have a better demeanour

4. Be clear to avoid miscommunication

Communicate clearly and use concrete examples so there is less room for miscommunication or misinterpretation. Explain how the situation makes you feel. 

Allow space so you can check with the other party that you have all the information and be open to their perspective and show empathy and compassion. 

Listening is the key to solving issues and enabling a healthy, productive conversation. 

Take some time out from making your points to hear the response and understand it instead of thinking what you want to say next. 

Ask questions to further your understanding of each other’s issues. Aim for non-blame communication.

5. Remember you're only human

Accept responsibility when appropriate. Equally, accept criticism and acknowledge your own mistakes, as interpersonal problems have interactional causes. 

Good leaders will know that ultimately an inability to effectively manage conflict or talk about issues will have repercussions on growth, communication, productivity, creativity, talent turnover and work culture

6. There's no winner or loser

Each of you will have your own sense of personal reality. It may be helpful to view the leader as a colleague who has similar goals as opposed to an opponent. 

Work together strategically to pool information to get a better picture and opt not to choose conflict or the need for victory.

7. Difficult conversations can be supportive, productive, and meaningful

After all, effective leadership involves establishing the necessary conditions for others to bring about transformation. 

Good leaders will know that ultimately an inability to effectively manage conflict or talk about issues will have repercussions on growth, communication, productivity, creativity, talent turnover and work culture. 

Fixing it takes courage and perseverance to do the right thing so creating the right conditions to allow people to speak up and be heard is vital.

If you enjoyed this, read: Is leadership an L&D obsession?

 

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Lynda Shaw PhD

Founder

Read more from Lynda Shaw PhD
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