An important contributor to leadership success is being able to engage in – and foster – healthy conflict. The main ingredient of healthy conflict is what I call “straight talk”: being comfortable speaking honestly, to the point, saying what you mean.
Unfortunately, many leaders shy away from straight talk, choosing instead to tiptoe around important conversations. Why? Because they are afraid straight talking will make them unlikeable and hurt people’s feelings. They think it might be perceived as lack of respect towards the other person.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
To be good straight talkers, leaders need to be good listeners, present and respectful. Yes, it requires courage and some getting used to. You must be willing to discuss the hard stuff and get out of your conversational comfort zone. The payoff, however, can be immense.
Benefits of Straight Talk in Leadership
In straight talk, directives and people’s intentions are crystal clear, leaving no room for confusion or misunderstandings. Ulterior motives and sideways agenda are put aside, helping to foster more authentic relationships and leadership success.
Teams whose leadership encourages straight talking are able to manage tough conversations easily and be upfront when issues arise. Knowing that everyone is straightforward increases the team’s ability to work collaboratively and produce solid solutions.
Conversely, companies that don’t use this type of leadership communication often experience lack of trust, low morale, and higher turnover. When certain topics are off limits, we reduce the possibilities for successful outcomes. People are afraid to speak up, projects are left unfinished, and teams become dysfunctional.
How To Do Straight Talk Right
There are four essential ingredients to straight-talking, successful leadership communication:
- Clarity: Putting the desired outcome of the conversation on the table so all parties are on the same page.
- Engagement: Asking questions and staying focused on the conversation, instead of getting distracted by the self-talk in our head. Making sure the other party stays engaged as well and inviting them back into the conversation if they appear to be drifting away.
- Feedback: Noting both the strengths and challenges of the other person’s point of view, rather than zeroing in on the negatives when we don’t agree with them. This is part of the role of leader as mentor.
- Responsibility: Owning up to our part for the issues in question instead of putting the blame on others and deflecting it from ourselves.
How Straight Talk Improved a Challenging Collaboration
Lori, an advertising executive, was frustrated with Heidi, one of her direct reports whom she had asked to create a budget for a new project. Heidi avoided the project for weeks and what she finally produced was not well done. Through her coaching sessions, Lori realized that this was the result of a communication breakdown and that she needed to address the situation head on.
She invited Heidi to her office and began the conversation with an apology, admitting she had not provided Heidi with enough direction. She then gave her specific feedback on how to improve the budget and get the work back on track. Owning up to her responsibility and being straight with Heidi instead of avoiding a tough conversation (as she normally would have done) helped Lori be a more effective leader and get a better outcome.
On To You
The leader sets the tone. If you run a company or a business unit and aren’t willing to be straight and honest with those around you, you create a culture that says: “we don’t address the hard stuff, we ignore it”, shutting the door to real communication.
So, step back and consider your recent challenges. Could they be the result of lack of straight talk? Have you had authentic conversations or are you avoiding and dancing around the hard stuff?
Try to embrace straight talk as part of your leadership communication style. Use the four principles of clarity, engagement, feedback, and responsibility. It might be difficult at first and you might have to give yourself time to prepare for the conversations. Acknowledge yourself when you do it well. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Want to do it but need guidance? Let’s talk.