Are tough conversations tough?

If you ask leaders if tough conversations are tough, the answer would be mostly yes. Intrinsically human beings want to connect and be liked. The thought of upsetting someone by criticising them directly puts most leaders off and we tend to ‘fluff up the issue’ or avoid the conversation altogether.

For me, Leadership comes down to 2 things:

Relationships and Conversations

Our job as a leader, manager or boss is, ultimately, is to deliver results. Because we can’t do it by ourselves, we need our reporting team help deliver these results. So, we have to ensure we have a great relationship with our direct reports. It starts with putting the right team together and then guiding them. Guiding your team really means to have the right conversations, to give them consistent feedback. And ask for feedback.

What does ‘having a great relationship’ mean?

1. Consistent Feedback (both ways)
2. Know your team members motivators, fears and challenges
3. Enable your team to truly collaborate to deliver results

Consistent Feedback is one of the most powerful tool a leader can have in their toolbox to build strong relationships, but I often find that a lack of feedback in conversations or feedback done badly.

Our team members rely on us to tell them immediately when they have done something wrong, are on the wrong track or ‘stuffed up’. We can’t wait only because we may be uncomfortable telling them. It sets them up for failure and can get them in real trouble. But, feedback shouldn’t be a personal attack on someone, e.g. ‘You are shit at your job, you are a failure…’. And I hear this type of feedback far too often unfortunately.

A simple, proven feedback model called SBI has helped millions of leaders to give better feedback: SBI

Situation: be specific about the situation, when, who, where
Behaviour: describe the behaviour you observed
Impact: point out what impact the behaviour had

Using this framework makes the process of feedback much less personal because you don’t attack the person. You simply explain the situation, the behaviour, and the impact. With that, you can, together with your team member, work on a solution, or you can ask them how they would solve the problem.

The other problem with feedback comes back to the fact that we don’t like giving critical feedback or having tough conversations. As a younger leader I really struggled with this. My natural behaviour preference is to connect with people and being liked so telling someone ‘what was what’ was tough and what I tended to do was to tell my member what they done wrong or where they had underperformed but would always end on a positive note like ‘but otherwise you are doing well. Keep up the good work’.

Total fluff! All my team member remembered from that conversation was ‘Keep up the good work’. Here is the thing, if you are addressing a challenge and there is a problem, you need to ‘challenge directly’ (Kim Scott). No fluff or ending on a positive note (or praise burger it was called in the 80s). Use SBI, be firm and fair and offer a solution and your expectation. That’s it. By saying ‘Keep up the good work’, all I did was making myself feeling more comfortable but I didn’t help my team member to fix the problem.

Developing relationships and having tough conversations requires trust. Scott says that in order to build trust, we need to look at doing 2 things:

1. Care personally: bring your whole self into the relationship, have your team member’s back, show support and challenge, be interested in their work and personal life
2. Challenge directly: be direct in your conversations, with both positive and negative messages. Immediate and direct

These two behaviours enable ‘Radical Condor’, the most impactful form of feedback. You might encounter a defensive reaction or anger at first when you give direct feedback but because your team member knows you care about them, it will subside and ultimately they will realize the feedback helps them improve and achieve results.

So when you think of improving to have tough conversations, remember to build trust first and check if your team members know that you personally care. Use SBI always for any feedback, don’t ‘fluff’ your tough conversations for your own sake and make sure you give balanced feedback, praise and criticism.

I was working with a client in China whose team was struggling with delivering results. But he wasn’t getting anywhere with just focussing on the results. He didn’t have strong enough relationships with his team members to have the right conversations and help achieve these results. The results of your direct reports in your team are directly connected to the relationships you have with them and through the conversations (guidance, feedback) you have with the. It all comes down to


Once my client started building trust and using consistent and balanced feedback, the team started being more cohesive and collaborated to achieve to coming quarter’s results.

If you want help with tough conversations for your teams email us at

Photo by Metin Ozer on Unsplash

Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert