Procrastinating on Uncomfortable Conversations

Note: This post is the final in a four part series.

In this final post of the series on emotional clarity as a pathway to self-discipline, we’ll examine how these tools can help leaders breakthrough the most common form of procrastination I see in US organizations: conflict avoidance.

All managers at different points in their careers find themselves needing to have a difficult conversation with a staff member about performance. And while the manager may have intellectual clarity about the need to have the conversation, too often, they find reasons to avoid it. They either procrastinate through finding other ways to fill their time, or, if they do have the conversation, they sugarcoat it so much it does not have the desired impact.

So what is the emotional confusion hijacking their intellectually clarity? The first problem is that there is invariably confusion on both sides: the report likely has fears of being judged or criticized. They don’t want to fail and may not be open to feedback. (This is an example of emotional confusion hijacking their intellectual clarity that constructive criticism is good.)

And the manager, who often suspects that, doesn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings, deal with a defensive reaction, or be judged for being too critical. Many of them want to be liked, despite their position of authority.

So both parties feel a great deal of anxiety. That fear, usually just under the surface and not acknowledged, leads to everybody to avoid the conversation.

Thus begins a vicious cycle. The manager knows he or she needs to have the conversation but doesn’t. The original performance issue doesn’t get addressed, so problems pile up, creating additional frustration for the manager. The bigger the performance gap gets, the tougher the conversation needs to be, the more difficult it is for the manager to have the conversation.

Ultimately, what could unlock the manager’s behavior is greater emotional clarity about two things:

  • The contribution he or she could make to the employee by having the conversation. Realizing how his feedback might provide guidance and growth for the staff member, and ultimately contribute to the future of the employee’s career.
  • How the manager him or herself could grow personally and professionally through learning to address these types of issues. This is a crucial leadership skill — how is this situation an opportunity for the manager to step up?

When the manager becomes more connected to those types of thoughts and goals, feelings will begin to surface that cause him to want to sit down and have the conversation.

Self-Curiosity Instead of Self-Judgment

Part of why this does not happen more often is that we are judgmental vs. curious about ourselves, especially regarding things we think we should be doing that we’re not.

I’ve learned to cherish the realization that I’m avoiding something, because it is the starting point of the emotional clarity to act in a self-disciplined way. That’s the place to stop and think, ‘Well, what’s happening here? What’s going on for me? What am I feeling and thinking?’

The manager’s task in that moment isn’t to force himself or herself to act, it’s to first understand what their emotional confusion is and how they can transform it by connecting with a learning and/or contribution goal. Only then will they become effective, focused and disciplined enough to take the required actions.

Think about an important conversation at work you have been meaning to have, but have been putting off. What are your fears about having this conversation? What could you contribute to the other person, your company and yourself by having this conversation? What could you learn or what skills could you develop by having this conversation? We would love to hear your comments and questions.

  1. Laurel O'Sullivan says:

    What a great take away. Learning to be more curious toward ourselves, rather than judgmental is truly what allows us to see life as the classroom and ourselves as the students. I think for many/most of us, there’s a journey to get to that place where the love of self is greater than the self criticism, because only then can the curiosity come forward in a healthy , learning centered way, rather than for the sake of analyzing and criticizing ourselves. Its a rewarding space to occupy once you do the work. I now see life as a classroom and myself as a lifelong learner, not the anxious student who always needs to be “right.” thanks for the reminder.

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