All Articles Leadership Communication The leader's role in embracing sweaty-palmed conversations

The leader’s role in embracing sweaty-palmed conversations

Leaders can't avoid difficult conversations or conflict if they want to do their jobs well and serve their teams. Here's a primer on rethinking that avoidance.

7 min read


The leader's role in embracing sweaty-palmed conversations

Jordan Whitfield/Unsplash

This post is an excerpt adapted from “We’re All in This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging” by Mike Robbins (Hay House Inc)


Leaders play an important role in encouraging, modeling, and making it safe and conducive for sweatypalmed conversations to take place within the team in a healthy and productive way. Whether you have a specific leadership position or you just want to influence others around you as a leader, here are a few specific things you can do and think about in this regard:

Embrace conflict

A frequent complaint I hear from teams I work with is that their leader doesn’t like conflict and tends to shut it down when it arises. This is one of the worst things we can do as leaders—it stifles debate, discussion, innovation, ideas, creativity, and so much more. Even though it might be tricky, scary, and uncomfortable, the more willing we are as leaders to embrace and even encourage healthy conflict, the more open the team can be and the better the solutions and outcomes will be. It’s critical to remember that conflict is essential for growth, trust, and collaboration. The more willing we are to remind ourselves and each other of this, and to take actions that are conducive to making conflict as open and productive as possible, the better off we will be personally as leaders and the stronger the team will be in the process.

Talk about the elephant in the room

There are often sensitive issues, uncomfortable topics, and difficult situations that arise. And while it’s important for us as leaders to use discretion, to honor confidentiality, and to be able to keep certain information private when necessary, one of the most important things we can do is to talk about touchy subjects directly—sooner rather than later. As the saying goes, “Bad news doesn’t age well.” Most of the time, some or all of the team members are aware of the issue, and although it might be uncomfortable, avoiding it usually makes things worse. Not only is it liberating to talk about the elephant in the room, when we do so, we can at the very least relieve some tension. More likely we’ll also have the possibility of using the collective wisdom of the group to address the challenge directly and come up with potential solutions. Additionally, we model courage, vulnerability, and growth mindset when we do this, which is beneficial to the situation and to the culture of the team.

Don’t triangulate or gossip

Part of our job as leaders is to listen to our team members when they come to us with issues or challenges, including when those things are specifically about other members of the team or the company. While we want to do everything we can to make it safe for people to open up with us and tell us how they’re truly feeling, we also want to make sure not to triangulate or gossip. Triangulation is when someone comes to us with feedback for another person, but wants us to deliver it instead of them doing so directly. Gossip is, of course, simply talking negatively about others behind their backs. Doing either of these things damages trust and psychological safety. If someone comes to us complaining about a co-worker, and in our attempt to empathize we jump in and start gossiping about the person they’re talking about, it might make them feel good initially that we agreed with their assessment, but ultimately it will leave them feeling nervous and insecure that we may be gossiping about them behind closed doors.

And, when we triangulate and don’t encourage our teams to have direct, open conversations with each other, not only are we less likely to help them resolve issues, we model behavior that is the opposite of embracing sweatypalmed conversations, which sets up further negativity and unhealthiness for the team. We want to challenge the people on our team to have these tough and important conversations with each other or at least be willing to help facilitate these discussions so that things get dealt with and resolved.

Ask for and take in feedback

Creating a feedback culture and having a team that embraces a growth mindset allows everyone to develop, perform, and thrive. The best way to inspire this is to model the behavior ourselves. Proactively asking for feedback from the people who report to us, as well as from our peers, our manager, and others, is a great way to ensure that we’re constantly growing and changing, and also to show our team members what it looks like, thus making it safer and easier for them to follow suit. Using the Start, Stop, Continue technique in one-on-one meetings is a great way to practice this. And, as important as asking for feedback is, people are going to be paying attention to what we do with their feedback. So, the more willing we are to thank them for it, act on it, and share our own growth process with the team, the more encouraged they’ll be to give us additional feedback and the more they’ll trust our authenticity in wanting it and using it.

Have regular check-ins and constant development conversations

The days of the annual performance reviews seem to be over in many of the most progressive organizations. The pace of business and the nature of how we work and communicate has forced us to change the way we think about managing people and performance, developing talent, and coaching. The best leaders I work with are constantly checking in with the people on their team and having development conversations all the time. While they may happen during formal one-on-one meetings or even in specific ways quarterly, biannually, or annually, it’s important to think of your role as being an ongoing coach for all the people on your team. Your ability to give on-the-spot, real-time feedback is often what can have the most significant impact. Finding creative and effective ways to have consistent check-ins and regular development conversations with everyone around you will benefit you, them, and the team.

Embracing sweaty-palmed conversations isn’t always fun or easy. Whether it’s talking about a sensitive topic, engaging in a challenging debate, or exchanging radically candid feedback, these tough conversations are foundational to our success and they’re necessary for us to create a team culture of high performance, trust, and belonging.


Mike Robbins is the author of “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” “Nothing Changes Until You Do;” “Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Already Taken,” and “Focus on the Good Stuff,” which have been translated into 15 languages. A sought-after speaker, consultant and thought leader, Robbins works with a diverse group of clients throughout the world, including Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Gap and the Oakland A’s. He is a regular contributor to Forbes and the host of a weekly podcast called “We’re All in This Together.” His work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, as well as on NPR and ABC News, among many others.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipcareer development and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.