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Leadership & Difficult Conversations– seven qualities that flip the 80:20 switch

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This issue of ‘difficult’ conversations certainly stirred up a hot debate in an Ignite workshop we ran last week.  What I love about our clients is that they’re the kind of people to discuss things rigorously.  Whether they agree or disagree, they’re always willing to give our recommendations a try.  That’s a real leadership quality.  In this blog I focus on seven leadership qualities that will make your life easier.  Give them a try.  They’ll also switch your team towards positive delivery, development and greater solidarity

Where does the ‘difficult conversation’ start?

What we see is that many team members are not getting honest conversations.

Whether that’s

  • What your objectives or priorities are


  • What their personal and professional development needs are

Sound like a performance conversation you’ve had recently?

Our experience is that, in the main, leaders are kind.  They genuinely don’t want to hurt or embarrass their staff.

Yet somehow the conversation ends up getting personal – with all sorts of unintended consequences.

Unclear communications switch people off.  As leaders we need to flip that switch on again.

The vision-motivation connection

If there’s no clear vision, people aren’t motivated.  This is fundamental.  They need to know –

  • Where they’re going
  • Why that direction
  • How they fit into the picture

The plan and ‘where I fit in’ connection

If there’s no clearly expressed plan, people are not coordinated.  They need –

  • To feel part of a functioning team
  • To know each others’ roles
  • To understand who does what, when

Kindness – paradoxically, a problem

Kindness is a hugely important value to me – but I recognise that there are times when it’s a real problem.

Some leaders try to rescue people and save them from difficulties, or spare them hard truths.

Others overpromise.  Whether that’s a pay-rise, possibilities of promotion, or new projects.  To compensate for bad news in the present.

Trust – a key leadership quality

One of the principles we teach in our Ignite Workshop is that of trusting others.

  • Trust people to be creative and capable – and to deliver
  • Trust that they have the wisdom to learn and grow
  • Trust that they have the potential to develop
  • Trust that they can take the occasional set-back or piece of bad news

What is hard for people is when the work environment is focused mainly on the negative.

Turn the work environment around.  Flip the 80:20 switch.  So that 80% of conversations and emails are focused on what IS working.

This creates a meaningful and fulfilling workplace.

Sometimes what we find is that leaders need to trust themselves as well.  Give themselves credit for their own skills, experience and achievements.  When we feel acknowledged, it’s somehow easier to acknowledge others.

Get the best people around you – and get the best out of them

The biggest challenge we hear when we present this leadership principle, is “well, what if they’re not capable?”

We recommend reading “Good to Great” by James Collins.  He talks there about the importance of getting the right team around you.

  • Have you recruited or inherited people who you don’t truly believe capable of doing the task in hand?
  • Or sometimes we’re so busy looking at what’s ‘wrong’ with people we forget why we hired them in the first place.

Take a look at your team through fresh eyes.

  • Remind yourself of their core skills and strengths.  That’s the capability you can trust in them.
  • Where are they dependable?  That’s the integrity you can trust in them.

The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere.  Sometimes the people we already have are good enough.  And the leader’s role is to get the best from them – in positive ways.

Get real about competency frameworks

Look at your performance or competency framework – and get real about it.

No one person is going to fulfil 100% of your competences.  It’s an unrealistic expectation.  And you don’t need them to anyway.

What we need are well-rounded teams – where the skills are delivered between the team members.  So everyone has a part to play – and they knows what that is.

Keep track of what you deliver

Set the expectation of your team that they keep daily records of what they have achieved.  So that the evidence is close to hand.

We use the system to keep our records.  (No, we’re not on commission!) They send team members a daily reminder.  You get a digest the following day.  So you can check on progress.

Focus on your leadership priorities

Automating the deliverables eliminates all those painful meetings that humiliate your team members.

It also enables you to focus on two vital leadership qualities:

  • Acknowledging what has been achieved
  • Supporting your team to deliver on the priorities

My challenge to you is to ask your staff this question: 

“Thinking about our 1-1 conversations or team meetings, how positive would you say they are on a scale of 0-10?”

Reassure them that you want an honest answer.  And just make a note of what they say.  Don’t react to the number they give you.  Or defend a low score.

Just thank them and move on.  When you know what you’re benchmark is, you can find ways to improve.

You don’t need to be perfect.  In fact, that’s often a hindrance for perfectionist leaders.  80:20 is more than good enough.

Leadership qualities recap

So – the leadership qualities that flip the switch to the positive are –

  1. Clarify your intentions, directions, roles and responsibilities
  2. Switch from rescuing to trusting
  3. Get or develop the best team around you
  4. Get real about competency frameworks
  5. Automate the reporting of deliverables
  6. Acknowledge the team’s achievements
  7. Support your team to deliver

I’m not saying any of this is easy to do.  So yes, easier said than done.  But I know that, when we do apply these qualities, leadership will switch to the positive.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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