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The 3 As of leading difficult conversations

The leader’s job is to get results through others. Be that person, not someone who's focused on either peace or power at the expense of improvement.

5 min read



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Whether you need to tell Steve he stinks or talk to Tanya about tardiness, some conversations are more difficult than others.  I’ve never known any leader with an ounce of compassion or a pound of self-awareness who actually enjoys initiating difficult conversations.

When it comes to difficult conversations there are three types of leaders. I call them the Three As: the Avoider, the Aggressor and the Accomplished. This article offers a snapshot of each type and a checklist of what each type says, so that you can easily determine whether you are an avoider, aggressor or accomplished.

The Avoider

Avoiders admit they hate confrontation. Rather than addressing issues immediately, they find credible reasons to procrastinate. The timing is wrong. The person just went through a divorce. The employee is a rainmaker and they can’t afford the loss. Sometimes, avoiders use damage control tactics to keep the peace. They move the problem employee to another location. They walk on eggshells or offer special favors — anything but initiate a conversation.  

Avoiders say things like:

  • We are all adults
  • It will all come out in the wash
  • We have an office full of women, so there’s bound to be drama
  • He’s a big boy
  • She’ll figure it out
  • I’m not their momma

Avoiders rescue themselves from the pain of initiating a conversation, and they rescue others from the pain of growing. Avoiding and rescuing costs the organization in many ways. Read what one of my clients said about avoiding.

“I’m just about at the end of a yearlong process of managing a disruptive employee. This situation ended up with lawyers involved and should reach a settlement today. It has been a long and painful process, as this employee had been tolerated for 18 years. This employee was occasionally talked to, but since she was considered a ‘high performer,’ she was allowed to carry on, hurting patients, families, and staff along the way, as well as creating chaos in her wake of disruption.

I work in a health care system, and addressing a high performer is very difficult. The entire process has taken a toll on me, my team, and the employee. I didn’t realize how hard emotionally and mentally it would really be.”

Not every avoided conversation results in a lawsuit. Sometimes the result is absenteeism or turnover, and sometimes the result is just poor productivity. Avoiders often underestimate the business impact of avoiding performance conversations. 

The Aggressor

The Aggressor prides himself on confrontation. While it may be true that aggressors don’t fear initiating conversations, these managers fail to get results that change performance or behavior. Their aggression and persecutory behavior creates an “us-versus-them” mentality contributing to absenteeism, turnover and lack of engagement.

Aggressors say things like:

  • I have no problem laying down the law
  • Take your drama to your mama
  • It’s my way or the highway
  • I didn’t ask you to work here
  • If you don’t like it, find another place to work
  • What in the world were you thinking?

In short, aggressors pride themselves on confrontation. Based on my observation in the field, those who are overly aggressive overestimate their leadership skills and underestimate the negative impact. These aggressors are often viewed by their employees as a bully-boss who use intimidation and anger rather than the critical skills needed to lead.

The Accomplished

The Accomplished are competent initiating difficult conversations that get positive results. Behaviors change. Productivity increases. Tardiness ceases. Very few of The Accomplished have come to this skill without executive education, coaching and a discipline of practice. Those who learn to excel do so because they have a process, and they know how to set the right intention from the beginning, keep the focus and institute accountability. 

The Accomplished say things like this:

  • My intention for this feedback is to help you …
  • Walk me through your thought process.
  • Let’s get a date on the calendar to review your progress.
  • Here’s what I need from you in the future.
  • Let me offer some coaching.

When it comes to initiating difficult conversations there are basically three types of leaders: The Avoider, The Aggressor and The Accomplished. The Avoider wants peace, the Aggressor wants power, and the Accomplished wants to get results through others. 

Bottom line: The leader’s job is to get results through others. Avoiders and Aggressors cost the company and contribute to lowered productivity, absenteeism and turnover. 

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011) and the author of “No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015). Visit her website, and connect via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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