Having Difficult Conversations with Authority Figures

One dangerous effect of American downsizing is that employees’ fear has limited their willingness to engage in the difficult conversations needed to improve performance.  I see and hear about this effect almost everywhere I go, and it seems to get worse all the time.

I tell people that avoiding engagement is also a kind of choice, with its own potential risks.  But people seem resigned to these risks, because they pale in comparison with the more immediate consequences they expect will follow any dissent – consequences like job loss, demotion, or being overlooked for the few available opportunities.

I believe that this paralyzing fear is bad for both employees and their organizations.  The effects on employees is obvious – stress reactions, unwillingness to maintain any personal boundaries, tolerance of bad managerial behavior, and an ongoing struggle to influence the conditions that might enable better individual results.  The effects on the organization may be less obvious but even more serious – performance problems suppressed or hidden until they blow up, insufficient testing of high-risk decisions, unresolved conflicts that block performance and damage customer relationships, legal penalties from bad managerial behavior, and the potential loss of valuable talent.  Also, I believe that innovation is also compromised, since it often springs from the lively dissent associated with creative destruction.

I understand why most employees are afraid to speak out.  The potential consequences they fear are both possible and very serious.  Unfortunately, especially in this age, I believe that the potential consequences of giving up your voice are also very serious.  When you choose not to speak, you essentially give up your opportunity to influence the decisions and actions that can shape your work life and your accomplishments.

So, what’s a person to do?  Following are some guidelines that might make it easier for you to raise your voice and shape your future.

  1. Don’t let authority figures live “rent free” in your head –Joan Kofodimos, my brilliant partner, coined this evocative phrase, and most people understand it immediately.  It’s reasonable and valuable to consider the potential consequences of your decisions and action.  It’s counterproductive to worry that every word, phrase, decision, or action is being scrutinized and judged.
  2. Don’t demonize your authority figures – Research and personal experience support the idea that most employees overestimate the influence of their authority figures – even “senior” managers.  As a result, these same employees tend to blame managers for inaction or what they see as poor decisions.  When frustration is extremely high, employees can go so far as demonizing these managers – which makes conversation virtually impossible.  Remember, these managers are never all powerful, and they may struggle with their own fears and limitations.
  3. Focus conversations on specific concerns, not general dissatisfaction – Your authority figures are probably aware of your general concerns, and they may even care about them, but they probably can’t or won’t do much to address them.  If you want to create real change, you must focus on 1-2 critical issues at a time.  When you focus on specific concerns, it’s easier to define interests, identify possible actions, and describe the potential benefits.
  4. Talk from the other person’s viewpoint – I teach a workshop called Influence Without Authority, and I am routinely amazed at the fact that most people cannot get out of their own head.  When they describe an issue or concern, it’s from their viewpoint, and reflects their personal challenges or frustrations.  When they propose an idea, it’s about their opportunity (with maybe some vague benefits for the company).  What most people miss is that they need to influence the person right in front of them – that person’s purpose and goals, their interests, and their benefits.  Any time you need a person to commit, especially one of your authority figures, you must make the proposal compelling for that person.
  5. Help the other person move into action – Too often, I see people who believe that their job is done when the idea is sold.  If the authority figure agrees, well then of course he/she has the power, skills, and tools to make it happen.  But what if they don’t, and what if they won’t ever tell you that.  The best way to ensure that difficult conversations move to action is to propose your own role in implementation –to your colleagues, talk with other stakeholders, help design plans or measures – anything to get the idea moving.  When you help move towards implementation, you not only help your authority figure succeed but you also get the opportunity to reclaim some of your personal power.