Managing Difficult Conversations in the Workplace
The President of a company called together his senior executives and announced that the CEO had a heart attack. The CEO was hospitalized, but after surgery he was expected to make a full recovery. The President insisted on complete confidentiality until he had more information to share.
The President was a wise man. He was formal, systematic in all his dealings, good at analyzing information, a man of integrity, thoughtful and well respected.
His Head of Marketing left the meeting feeling confused, a sense of instability, emotional, and concerned. He immediately used social media to encourage all his friends to think about the CEO and believe for a fast recovery. The Head of Marketing was empathetic and warm. He was a person who needed stability and a calm, predictable working environment. He was very well liked, very good at his job and had a wide network of friends and business contacts.
Directly after the meeting, the President received a call from the media asking for a comment; the company share price dropped 10%. The next call was from the Chairman insisting the source of the leak be found and fired.
The news of the CEO’s heart attack was now only 3 hours old; the potential fall out to the business (and the family) was significant.
The President recalled his executive team kept them standing and insisted the culprit own up immediately. The Head of Marketing owned up and the remainder of the team left the room.
The President immediately put the Head of Marketing on notice saying, “I instructed you to keep what I told you in confidence. That means you agree to keep the information completely, totally secret and not to repeat the information without permission.” He continued, becoming even more analytical in his communication, “asking someone to keep a confidence is a solemn contract. You broke it.”
The Head of Marketing tried, without success, to respond. The President left the room leaving the executive confused, bruised (metaphorically speaking) and devastated that he had acted so inappropriately. His first reaction to the news was driven by feelings and a loss of certainty about his future. He’d given no thought to the family or the consequences of such news reaching the marketplace.
The reality of the situation is that the President and Head of Marketing were operating from their natural zone and they did not have the awareness to adapt.
Had both parties understood their inherent communication and behavioral styles this would have been a different scenario. The President would have emphasized the potential market risk. He would have understood the inherent behaviors of some of his team. He could have stressed the importance of not bringing emotions into the situation. The Head of Marketing would have understood his own reaction to the challenging news. He would have realized he’d be concerned about the potential loss of stability and safety in his environment and known how to manage his reaction to the news.
- Set a structured agenda and have prepared questions.
- Meet in a more formal environment in the office.
- Expect yes/no answers.
- Offer details and analysis.
- Avoid abstract ideas in communication, and keep to specifics.
- Present the research performed to come to the specific conclusion.
- Provide case studies as examples rather than having a high-level, conceptual discussion.
- Show the risks are minimized (not eliminated) in the recommendations.
- Say what you are going to do and then do it. Be very transparent.
- Provide them with newsletters and books, economic information.
How we handle responsibility for our decisions, as well as our mistakes, is a direct reflection on our character. However, without insight into our inherent communication and behavioral style we do not know our default reaction to a situation such as the Head of Marketing faced.