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3 things great leaders do before tough conversations

All great leaders who thrive in having these conversations embrace the use of a three-part formula: Standards + evidence + courage = direct dialogue.

4 min read


3 things great leaders do before tough conversations


Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by John Eades.

Ever tried to have a tough conversation with someone and it went terribly wrong? Or worse, you know you need to have a difficult conversation but you hold back, only to run up against the same problem three months later?

These conversations are especially important if you are in a position of leadership. Tough conversations can be uncomfortable, but consider the alternative. You could be suppressing a person’s potential by not sharing something that could help them on their journey, ultimately stunting their professional development.

Many frameworks exist to help successfully execute these difficult conversations. Like anything, success hinges on preparation. All great leaders who thrive in having these conversations embrace the use of a three-part formula: Standards + evidence + courage = direct dialogue

If you have all three parts — standards, evidence, and courage — the interactions with your team members who fail, meet or exceed the standard will happen naturally. Conversely, if one of them is weak or doesn’t exist, your tough conversation falls apart.

Setting clear standards

Imagine a police officer pulled you over for speeding, but there was no speed limit posted. Not only would you be confused, but you’d be furious because you didn’t know the ground rules. If you are going to be successful at having tough conversations, you have to set the standards first.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson University’s championship-winning football coach, has a mantra: “Best is the standard.” A standard defines what good looks like. I’ve come to realize that the very best leaders don’t just determine what “good” looks like — they define what “great” looks like.

Standards come in three forms: 

  • Policy
  • Procedure
  • Merit

Each type of standard serves a different purpose. The key is that you have not only thought out the standards of your team, but also communicated them clearly.

Facts, not feelings

There’s nothing that will derail a difficult conversation more than the lack of evidence. Be prepared with facts, not feelings, to support your perspective. The evidence should be specific, detailed and tangible.

Many managers claim they are “too busy” to spot evidence. Just walking around the office or being attentive during a meeting isn’t enough. Why? Because people are good at straightening up when the boss comes around.

Dedicate time on your calendar to proactively look for evidence. The purpose of this isn’t to seek bad behavior or find ways to micromanage. It’s to capture evidence to encourage, reinforce or improve performance.

Courage for the win

Once you have gathered evidence, then you need the most significant element of the formula: courage. Courage is simply the ability to do something that frightens you.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” Each and every virtue a leader needs to possess will meet its testing point at some time.

Most leaders aren’t comfortable with the idea of inviting a team member into a dialogue to share disapproval, which is why courage is so necessary. If you fall into this category, ask yourself this one simple question: “Will taking action help this person?” If the answer is yes, have the courage to step into the dialogue.


John Eades is the author of “Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success.” He is also the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company that exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. He was named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Management & Workplace and was awarded the 2017 Readership Award by John is also the host of the “Follow My Lead” podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You can follow him on LinkedIn.

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