BLOG: Extraordinary Leadership and High Functioning Teams

5 Types of Dysfunctional Teams

Posted by Kristin Dressel on Tue, Mar 10, 2015

clearwater_office_question_001-resized-600Are you a leader or member of a dysfunctional workplace team? Which one of the following reality TV shows does your dysfunctional team represent?

1. The Housewives of Any City

This team has strong personalities who believe they're the star and everyone else orbits around the sun of their presence. Other people exist only to stroke their ego, do their bidding and generally, make them feel like the most important person in the world. They excuse their own poor behavior but they're very quick to let others know when their feelings have been hurt or you've disappointed them, because they deserve better.

2. The Bachelor

You’re a nice team, really. Team members believe it’s more important to be sickly sweet and nice to get the leader’s attention. If someone asks for an opinion, team members are too bland and uninformed to offer a decisive perspective and besides, they wouldn't want to differ from the leader's opinions. Everyone would rather take the high road and revel in their sanctimonious behavior than actually do anything that might possibly cause them to lose their “nice person” moniker with the team leader.

3. Hell’s Kitchen

This is the opposite of #2. Yelling to get your point across is considered normal on this team. Dissention and differing opinions are unwelcome. It’s the team leader's way or the highway and anyone who doesn’t agree is automatically labeled an idiot. You secretly think you’re the only person on the team with any intelligence and demean anyone who makes the slightest mistake. Support and collaboration are foreign words to this team.

4. Survivorcc_collaborative_leadership_002

Everyone gets along on this team until it’s time to place blame and look for the sacrificial lamb. Then the finger pointing starts and how people really feel about each other is exposed. Back stabbing is common. Team members live on a diet of paranoia and distrust. You could receive a reward one day and be cut loose the next. Ultimately, people on this team look out for their own interests and use others to get what they want.

5. Amazing Race

This team is fun and adventurous, but ambiguous. You receive little direction or instruction. You’re expected to just figure it out on your own. All of your hard work and effort could go to waste because of someone who can't understand your simple instructions.Rewards are only for first place finishers and, if you're falling behind, you're cut loose so you're not a burden to the others on the team.

Is Your Team Dysfunctional?

Tags: high functioning teams, team building and accountability, DiSC assessments

Defining Success: The Meaning of Grit

Posted by Andrea Hopke on Tue, Mar 03, 2015

cc_collaborative_leadership_001It’s the first week of March. At the end of 2015 as you look back, what do you want to have attained or accomplished professionally? What's your definition of success? What are you driven to achieve? What matters so deeply to you that you are willing to dedicate time, energy, and emotion to its fulfillment? How do you stay motivated and engaged in the months ahead so that at the end of the year you are celebrating and smiling?

A recent TED (technology, entertainment, design) RADIO program on success highlights insights from several high achievers including:

  • MacArthur Genius award winner Angela Duckworth (“Is Having Grit The Key?")
  • The ever so intense Tony Robbins (“How Can Drive Make You a Success?”)
  • And Ron Gutman (“Can you Smile Your Way to Success?”) 

In every case, from slightly different points of view, the speakers all acknowledge internal motivation as a key to success, and they disarm the purported power external carrots have been said to have for changing our behavior from couch slouch to passionate producer.

In particular, I was fascinated by Angela Duckworth’s research on grit.

She defines grit as: "The disposition to pursue very long term goals with passion and perseverance.” Clearly requiring stamina. "Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Some of her metrics include the questions:

  • I finish whatever I begin
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me
  • I am diligent

In her research, she found that grittier kids were more likely to graduate from school, even when matched on family income, test scores, or how safe they felt in the environment.cc_leadership_012

She found no positive correlation between natural ability and grit, contrary to our expectations.

She also found that “When kids read and learn about the brain and its growth in response to challenge, they are more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe failure is a permanent situation.”

Her advice to us all - learn to be excellent in the things you choose to do. To focus in areas that matter to you.

In our leadership development work, we use the work style profile DiSC and are often asked, are most leaders “D” style?  Driven, results oriented, challenging, direct.

Our answer: ANY style can lead; they just look different when they do it.  

  • “D” styles are more direct, like to dominate the conversation, are defined by “drive” and focus on results. 
  • “S” styles on the other hand, are the relative opposite of a “D". They take note of their environment and help create safety and stability for others, a particularly useful skill during dramatic times of change (merger/acquisition, economic unrest, etc.). They often appear to be more reserved than D’s and we could easily be misled to believe they do not have leadership qualities.

clearwater_disc_001So, perhaps this is where grit comes in to play - independent of the natural profile of behavior that describes us as D, I, S or C.  I recently met an emerging leader at a professional services firm. She is a blended style, combining “S” and “I”. The “i” style enjoys collaboration, working with others to solve problems, figuring out how to influence change (versus demanding it, which can be more of a “D” trait).

This young woman has a lot of grit. She moved here on her own from India, leaving behind her parents and 2 younger siblings, to go to college in a field dominated by men. She later brought her younger brother over so that he could graduate from high school in the United States and attend university here. When the company she worked for was acquired by a larger firm, and no one gave her direction for the first year at the new company, she proactively sought project work by going to every director and asking how she could help. She built the reputation as a dedicated, focused, hardworking, passionate professional, building strong relationships with her clients, and looking for opportunities to become even more successful. Her focus this year is on public speaking and presentation skills, which do not come easily or naturally to her. I have no doubt that with her grit and determination, she will excel.

One day she will lead a team, and then a department and then a company. She has grit. She has what it takes to succeed as a leader.

Request a FREE Leadership Consultation


Tags: leadership secrets, DiSC assessments, Emotional Intelligence, Career Development

4 Key Priorities for Leadership Development in 2015

Posted by Andrea Hopke on Thu, Jan 29, 2015

In a recent survey, we invited you to share your own professional priorities for 2015, identifying areas needing attention to develop your leadership in the months ahead

Topping the list for participants are 4 key topics:

  1. Articulating the vision of who I can be as a leader - knowing where I am heading
  2. Strengthening my network of allies and contacts
  3. Developing executive presence (listen to our free call on executive presence: link)
  4. Influencing others

2015_Survey_LDF_V1How do your professional priorities compare to these? If you haven’t completed the survey, follow this link  then come back here to see what else we found.  

We found interesting differences depending upon whether you consider yourself a leader in all areas of your work, or if you are a leader in only some areas. 

Those with more leadership responsibility (consider themselves leaders in all areas of their work):

  • Are focusing on developing the skills of influencing and inspiring others in 2015.  
  • They are also more inclined to prioritize finding a sponsor to support their development. 

Those with less leadership responsibility (leading in some areas of their work but not all):

  • Are twice as likely to need to focus on tackling tough conversations
  • And are more focused on building confidence regarding the next steps.

2015_LDF_survey_Slide_3Changes in roles can prompt a review of priorities and new skills to develop. One person acknowledged that she had “always been a successful, confident leader, but with job and role changes, I have become less influential with peers.” Another person added that a priority for him in 2015 is the art of balancing strategic perspective with implementation: “I want to continue to lead and mentor with attention on both an overall strategic vision and tactical excellence.” 

Join Us at the upcoming Leadership Development Forum

Whatever your priority, join us for our next Leadership Development Forum, a 4 month program starting mid-February, focused exclusively on your leadership priorities and intentions for 2015. This is a great way to stay focused on what really matters to you this year in addressing your own professional development. Or call us to discuss creating a forum within your company

“This was a safe way to really take a look at what I want to do to develop myself at my organization. The positive reinforcement coupled with the 4 modules built on great tools was a supportive way for me to stretch myself. “

virtual leadership development forum

Tags: Career Development, Leadership Development Forum

Get Excited About Leadership Development

Posted by Kristin Dressel on Tue, Jan 27, 2015

cc_leadership_018When you think of leadership development do you get excited about it? Do you dread it or fear it? Are you unsure whether you think it’s for you or lack the confidence to know what to do? Have you participated in training programs that left you wanting more?

Consider the following real-life quotes and ask yourself if you’ve ever said one of them regarding your career development:

“This was a really big benefit to me. It allowed me to actually prioritize taking time for my career!”

“It has given me new energy in so many ways.”

“I am so much more self-aware. It has really helped me approach things in a new and different way.”

“It was terrific to learn that others are struggling with some of the same things.”

“This was a safe way to really take a look at what I want to do to develop myself at my company.”

“The positive reinforcement coupled with the 4 modules built on teaching great tools was a supportive way for me to stretch myself.”

“My favorite part was learning more about how to leverage feedback for greater career success.”

“I am more energized around my growth and development and I’ve made invaluable connections with program participants.”

“It helped me step up to own my career while increasing my confidence in my ability to deliver results at a higher level.”

These quotes are from people who are just like you. They want to get ahead but they’re not sure where to look or what to do about it. Make 2015 the year you take your career in your hands and drive it in the direction of success.cc_team_010

Register today for our next Leadership Development Forum (start date February 18th). Become excited about your career development, learn tools to get ahead and gain the confidence you need through a supportive and informative program.

The Leadership Development Forum is a series of 4 teleclasses over 4 months that helps you:

  •          Articulate your professional vision
  •          Enhance your executive presence and power
  •          Learn how to use feedback effectively
  •          Strengthen work relationships and build allies
  •          Create a specific action plan that delivers measurable results

Are you dedicated to your professional success? Then register today for the next session and join with other like-minded professionals to help you get excited about your career.

virtual leadership development forum

Tags: leadership development, Extraordinary Leadership, Career Development

5 Ways to Jump Start Your Career in 2015

Posted by Kristin Dressel on Thu, Jan 22, 2015

cc_mentors_0021. Ask to be placed on a new project

Experience across different departments and functions is one key skill companies look for when deciding who to promote to the next level. Take the initiative this year and ask for additional responsibilities by working on a new project, preferably in an area you haven’t worked in before. If your boss doesn’t have any ideas, seek out other team leaders or discuss it with the HR department. If you can’t find an internal business project, consider heading up a new recycling effort at your company, sign-up more company volunteers for a local charity, or lead a company-wide fitness challenge. Any effort on your part to take a leadership role and develop new skills will raise your profile among the leaders at your organization.

2. Define your brand at work

Are you the person other people come to for advice? Do your colleagues value your collaboration skills and always want you on their project? Or, are you known for only doing your work and not helping others?

Determine what your current brand at work is, decide what you want it to be, and then focus on what you can do to improve it. Ask for feedback from your colleagues on what you do well and have them suggest one area you could focus on to improve. Commit to working on your brand every day and improving how you are perceived by others at your company.

3. Expand your network               cc_team_011

Too often, we have our heads down and focused on our own work, our own team and our own department. Start networking with people in other areas of your organization. Ask someone in the HR department to get a coffee with you or invite someone from the accounting department to join you for lunch. Stop and compliment the marketing department on their latest efforts or talk about the latest sporting event with someone from Sales.

By building those relationships in other departments, you’re expanding your network and raising your profile at work. It also shows you are interested in how others are doing and how it relates to the success of the company. Networking at industry functions, professional organizations and other external associations will also help widen your view and help you gain valuable insight as to what works well for other professionals in a similar function or industry.

4. Seek a mentor or sponsor

We all need someone to help us along our career. Do you have a mentor or sponsor you can seek professional advice and support from? Who can you discuss your career with to gain insight and guidance?

It’s wonderful if you have a supportive boss who looks out for you in the company and wants you to be successful. Some leaders take great pride in seeing their team members promoted. Unfortunately, many bosses simply don’t think of helping their employees get promoted or don’t take the time to do it when they already have numerous responsibilities on their plate. That’s why it’s important for you to seek out your own mentor or sponsor, either in the company or outside of it, who can offer you the type of career advice, encouragement, assistance and direction that everyone needs to be successful.

cc_team_0115. Join a leadership development forum

Some companies may offer leadership training, but many do not. Either way, it’s important for you to take the initiative to develop your leadership skills. It’s your career, your future, your responsibility, so don’t wait around for your organization to select you for training. Find a leadership training program to help you gain an advantage at work.

Clearwater offers a virtual leadership development forum to help you become more influential in your organization and accelerate your career. The next 4-class session starts February 18th. Register for this program and learn how to take your career to the next level, or in the words of a previous participant, “I would highly recommend this program to any leader wanting to lead at a higher level.”

virtual leadership development forum

Tags: leadership development, Career Development

Work Life Balance: Become More Mindful

Posted by Andrea Hopke on Wed, Jan 21, 2015

Scott_Eblin_OverworkedLast year, Scott Eblin wrote Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. Of course, who wouldn’t resonate with that title?! It targets business people and, specifically, business leaders. He states: “One of my favorite definitions of leadership is that it’s a two part job—the first is to define reality; the second is to offer hope.” And what gets in the way of clearly understanding and dealing with reality are distractions and limiting patterns of belief and behavior that lead us to overwork and land us in a state of feeling overwhelmed: grouchiness, insomnia, poor decisions, lack of follow through, you name it.

So, how practiced are you at defining reality? Your reality? The reality of those on your team? The reality of your industry? And how wide is your lens? Do you incorporate the reality of your community, country, or globe into your assessment of the current situation? Certainly, the recent events in France at Charlie Hebdoe entered everyone’s reality along some dimension: emotional (compassion, outrage), judicial (right of free speech), integrity (believing and practicing a commitment to respect for all religions), personal (friends or colleagues who live in France; who are members of Islam; who are journalists). There’s much to considerand if we don’t stop long enough to ask ourselves what we believe, pausing for a moment to check in with ourselves to see what toll this has taken on us and others, then we continue to barrel along, oblivious to the impact.

Here’s a favorite visual of oursthe Human Function curveused for decades as a graphic for the impact of stress. We often include it in a leadership training or coaching session, asking: "Today, in this moment, where would you plot yourself on this curve?"  As stress increases (the horizontal dimension), our creative engagement increases (dubbed as good stress) but only to a point. Then our performance, our positive output, our hope (!), our clarity and our health all start to diminish as over time we allow ourselves no break.


We are in Such a Rush to complete the project, meet the goal, stake our claim that we forget to be mindful of the impact world events on the macro level and our choices on a more immediate level may be having on us (lack of sleep, poor selections in nutrition, grouchy moods). We forget to ask others how they are doing in the midst of earth shaking news or simply in the midst of a challenging work day. And, when we do ask, do we truly taking the time to listen? The reality is that none of us can sustain the pace or practices that keep us “over the hump" in fatigue and distress. That’s reality. But, there is hope!

As Eblin points out: We must do something to break cycles that keep us from being mindful, from being fully present, so that we are clear in each moment about our choices and actions. Being intentional about our desired outcomes. Having a simple way to keep ourselves focused. Tracking the progress. He’s not talking about a to do list, but a thoughtful inventory of self. Working with a coach, joining a group of peers to share insights and commitments, identifying rituals or practices that restore your energy—all of these can fuel your mojo. 

Personally, I believe if we each commit to tune in more regularly we can address the fundamental questions: Where am I in this moment on that Human Function Curve, What is contributing to this current reality, What can I do right now to create a more creativehealthyproductivepositive situation, and Who can I ally myself with so that I am more likely to keep that positive momentum? 

Best wishes this new year for deleting from your repertoire “overwork” and “overwhelm” and replacing them with the experiences that inspire and sustain

Tags: clarity of vision, leadership secrets, work life balance

Executive Presence: 3 Practical Steps to Accelerate Your Brand in 2015

Posted by Andrea Hopke on Thu, Jan 15, 2015

cc_leadership_014You know you need to focus on it, but where to start? What IS it? What should you do next? These are the questions we hear from clients grappling with executive presence and developing their brand at work.

We recently hosted a free call on Executive Presence: 3 practical steps to accelerate your brand. Listen to it HERE.

At the end of the call several excellent and intelligent questions were posed. Here’s one.

Q: How can I, a petite African American female, establish executive presence in a culture and company in which I am surrounded by 6 feet tall white males?

Great question. Worthy of more than a short blog, but we’ll share a few thoughts. According to 2004 research by Timothy Judge & Daniel Cable (discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, and by Howard Ross in Reinventing Diversity) there is a measurable bias in American industry and culture for the tall, male leader. 60% of CEO’s at the time of the study were more than six feet tall, but only 15% of American males are over six feet.

So, given these cultural phenomena, how would one build a brand that is noteworthy, an executive presence that is powerful?

In our work with established and emerging leaders, creating a positive impression can be as tactical as:

  • Dressing one step above everyone else—establishing a consistent level of professional appearance.
  • Practicing the skills required to be poised under fire—this is one of The Most Noteworthy characteristics of executive presence, primarily because most of us fall apart when the situation gets dicey, especially in public. Take a breath (and count a beat) before responding to an attack or in a conflict situation. When the 5 foot tall female is unflappable, that is noteworthy to her 6 feet plus counterparts.
  • Being approachable—saying “yes” to tough assignments, open to new ideas, receptive to others’  input and incorporating that into your presentations and content garners respect and encouragement.cc_leadership_018

The longer term initiatives revolve around enrolling and engaging others in the development of your brand:

  • Establish and share a clear vision of who you are, what you have to offer, where you want to go with your professional career; and find allies to help you establish that reputation and open doors to help you stretch are all key components.
  • Understand your audience—who you are presenting to and meeting with, how best to approach them, preparing in advance and practicing delivery; and relating to what they value so that they are more receptive to what you are asking. It’s a sign of respect for them and shows how smart and committed you are to shared success. 

And finally, get serious about being believable—believe in yourself!

  • The impression of confidence is best fed by Actual Confidence…not acting a part, but believing in oneself. Knowing that you have the facts, information, background you need to defend a point or stake a claim. Do whatever it takes to create a belief in yourself, your skills, your value, your contribution.
  • Manage your emotions—avoid the tendency to confront arrogance with arrogance. Well-crafted statements of accomplishment speak volumes by sounding more born of humility than hubris. 

We are passionate about the topic of presence. It is a recurrent theme in working with leaders at a variety of levels across organizations and industries and a key to successful leadership. We very much appreciate the callers who joined us on Tuesday, and the brave souls who asked questions and wrote us later with their commitments.

Join us in an upcoming Leadership Development Forum designed specifically for intentional and focused work on your goals, including developing executive presence.

Tags: Extraordinary Leadership, Executive Presence, Career Development

Taking Stock of My Career Development

Posted by Rebecca Dannenfelser on Fri, Dec 12, 2014

"All I want for the Christmas/Hanukkah/holidays is ________________."

career development

For many of us, this is the time of year to run around like crazy looking for gifts for those we love. We may drive ourselves senseless looking for the perfect gift for our spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, son or daughter, or life-long friend.

To others, service and helping out those less fortunate may be the best way for us to "get in the spirit of the holidays." We may find real joy in shopping for a deserving family struggling to make ends meet, helping to create a holiday experience, that exceeds the family's wildest dreams. 

All this attention on gifting for others is good for the soul and while it can be commercial, stressful and down-right challenging, just simply taking time off to be with those we love remains a wonderful way to reconnect and celebrate this spirit-filled time of year. 

And yet, as we round the bend past the hustle and bustle of Christmas and the holidays, it's equally important that we begin planning for taking stock in what's happening with our careers. Career development is no longer about waiting to see what happens at the performance review time (delivered once or maybe twice a year).career development

Career development is about building a campaign that leverages a person's skills, strengths, talents, hopes and dreams and vets those against the company's landscape, culture and your boss/manager's opinion of your future potential. And, while your manager's view of where you are headed matters, it falls on you to make sure you are asking for what you need to develop a true career development plan that allows your career to blossom and grow. 

Rather than head into 2015 with the same old approach to waiting to see what happens with your career, take the initiative and start to see your career development as something you can optimize.

The 4 biggest things you can do to change the course:

  1. Know where you currently stand. Ask your boss, peers, clients, friends and family for feedback on how they see you as a leader. Ask them for the specific things you do well and what you can do to be an even better leader in the future. 
  2. Know where you want to focus you career development strategy by taking part in our survey on: THE PERFECT CAREER STOCKING: LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT AREAS OF FOCUS 
    • I need a vision of where I can go in my career
    • I want to inspire others to follow me and set their own visions
    • I want to increase my confidence level in my strengths and in my opportunity areas so I am ready for the next role
    • I want a senior leader sponsor me at work
    • I want to increase my executive presence
    • I want to influence others, becoming known as someone who makes things happen at work
    • I want to develop my public speaking and writing skills
    • I want to become more adept at tough conversation
  3. Know what role you want next, but be specific and open (sometimes others see potential we don't see.) 
  4. Know the importance of meeting regularly with your boss/HR. This requires you to do some "heavy lifting" but it is the ideal way to highlight all the specific things you are doing to ramp up your career development and share the specifics of your success by goal. Seek feedback on progress and take heed on the feedback you are given. 

career developmentWill it be easy? No? Are the stakes high? Sure, but complaining about a lack of promotion has never been more prevalent for some leaders in middle management roles. In the familiar words from the Rolling Stones, putting responsibility for success or failure on our shoulders is often the way we finally get what we need.

 "No, you can't always get what you want
No, you can't always get what you want
No, you can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need"

Read more:  Rolling Stones - You Can't Always Get What You Want Lyrics | MetroLyrics 








Tags: action planning, leadership development, Career Development

Extraordinary Leadership: What Does it Take To Be Great?

Posted by Rebecca Dannenfelser on Fri, Dec 05, 2014

"Great and good are seldom the same man." -Winston Churchill

cc_extraordinary_leadershipGreat. Extraordinary. A stand-out person, one who leads at a higher level. A man or women who others want to follow. A person who shows they care. A leader who can make decisions, set direction, inspire others with a strong vision for the future, while executing on the needed deliverables. 

When you hear the word great, and you think about leadership, what comes to mind for you?

After several years at Macy's as a senior leader myself and after countless leadership training sessions with thousands of leaders in a variety of industries, when we ask people who was the greatest leader they have ever worked for, here's what we hear:

  • "The thing about this guy was he/she pushed me, believed in me, when others didn't."

  • "I remember my best boss to this day, she was tough and some of her feedback was hard to hear, but she was so fair and she had this way of making me feel really valued, I would have followed her any where."

  • "He/she had an impact on everyone, their ability to rally people to the new changes needed was amazing."

  • "My best boss--he/she is still a large part of who I am and what I became, I still call them, and I have modeled by leadership style around theirs."

  • "This person called me and asked me to take this role that I just knew I should turn down-- I wasn't ready-- but they insisted I was, and that was the real turning point in my career." 

It doesn't matter where we have done this training exercise, the results are always the same. Extraordinary leaders tend to do 5 things better than their peers:

  1. cc_extraordinary_leadershipThey have a vision. Usually a positive one conveyed with confidence about the future and where the business is going and how their followers or direct reports are part of it. This vision fills others with hope, and understanding of "why" others are part of it helps to galvanize the vision becoming reality. 
  2. They lead with confidence--even in the face of adversity, bad business, or economic downturns. Their steady flow of belief calms down the anxiety in others so that they can do their work with confidence and the security of feeling like things can and will get better. 
  3. They build powerful networks to help others get work done more effectively, not just because they want to be know as "powerful". They volunteer to connect others. They get the notion that work has gotten more complex and the person who has the best networks for getting work accomplished more efficiently will emerge as a person more valued in the organization. They don't see the need for silos, they would rather seek collaboration with others. 
  4. They have a strong set of communication and people skills. People know where they stand. And, they set out to communicate to improve things: performance, people development, vision or strategy. They are not afraid to give direct feedback or hold someone accountable because they know, these things are the best ways to invest in others. They are also just as apt to seek feedback for how they can improve and get better. 
  5. They believe in their team. And, as the team leader they are willing to invest in higher team performance. They know it takes a lot to build trust, engage in healthy conflict, gain commitment to the team goals, hold team members accountable and drive for results. 

Download our extraordinary leadership audit and see where you stand. And, please feel free to share your best boss ever story, we would love to hear from you!

Download our Free  Leadership Assessment

Tags: definition of leadership, leadership development, Extraordinary Leadership

Guest Blog: Difficult Conversations: A Failure to Communicate

Posted by Kristin Dressel on Wed, Oct 29, 2014

cc_tough_talkEarlier this month Becky Dannenfelser and Conni Todd presented a workshop based on our book, Tough Talk: Ten Tips for Disarming Difficult Conversations to the PMI Atlanta Chapter. It was a great evening and Becky and Conni truly appreciated the interactions with the audience who were very sophisticated and engaged with the topic. And a special thanks to Mike Ososki for the following article which originally appeared here

"Communicating Success at Work": October Dinner Meeting Summary

by Mike Ososki, PMP, Communications Committee, PMI Atlanta

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” the classic line from 1967’s movie Cool Hand Luke, is timeless. This pronouncement rings as true today as ever—probably more so. (And isn’t it ironic, as we enjoy more means to communicate than ever before?)

Monday night’s Dunwoody Dinner tackled this issue in the workplace context, led by Becky Dannenfelser and Conni Todd of Clearwater Consulting Group. Their objectives were to identify the most prevalent tough conversations, give tips to disarm them, and share a framework to prepare.

Susan Scott asserts “The person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge the leader.” Seems like a noble goal well worth pursuing—and extremely challenging. But it is very much in your best interest to strive for this mindset. Consider that those most confident to address high-stakes conversations are most likely to enjoy promotions, higher pay, and better tough talk 002

Are you afraid to talk about it? You’re not alone: 70% of employees currently face difficult conversations with peers, managers, and reports. Just 31% of managers think they are skilled to deal with conflict, and only 21% of their reports believe their manager is skilled at this task. It’s tougher for women, as only 13% of them feel confident in their ability to tackle tough communication issues at work.

No one is in a vacuum, and your work culture plays a big part. According to Conni and Becky, 44% of executives believe that their organization has a candid environment. The rest have a bigger issue, and as George Bernard Shaw so insightfully observed, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Beware of company cultures rife with attitudes of blame, complaints and criticism, lack of accountability, hidden agendas, and silos.

Why do we avoid difficult conversations? Most basically, it’s fear. Fear of retaliation, looking dumb, or just negative feelings. Sometimes it’s the win/lose, either/or competitive mindset. No one wants to be “the loser.” It always helps to sharpen our skills. At work, perhaps the most challenging topics are: 1) Performance reviews, 2) Negotiation, 3) Peer-to-peer accountability, and 4) Poor leadership.

Performance reviews can be déjà vu, with 43% of employees hearing the same negative feedback year after year. And 87% of employees leave their review with no plan of action. TIP: Start with yourself. Create a 90-day plan to improve. Share it with your boss and peers. Be transparently accountable.

Some gender notes: 8 of 10 men feel the need to be careful and indirect in providing feedback to women, while 8 of 10 women want direct feedback. Women can negotiate excellently for others, poorly for themselves, and have the hardest time negotiating with other women. Both genders struggle to negotiate limits, pay increases, and changes in performance elements. TIP: Know what you’re worth. Use the salary wizard at Get the facts and be prepared to educate, inform, and share.

cc_difficult_conversations_at_workOf 12,000 work teams surveyed, 2/3 rated peer-to-peer accountability with the lowest score. While a whopping 93% feel that a coworker doesn’t do their fair share, just a tiny 10% speak up. This recipe can only promote bitter dysfunction. Don’t tolerate; instead, prepare well, then gently confront. TIP: Go first. Clarify roles and expectations. Make a public commitment to what others can count on you for. Accountability is mutual agreement with clear goals and roles.

Our intrepid Eleanor Roosevelt declared, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you must stop and look fear in the face.” When your boss is the problem, you can ignore it, talk to HR, or tackle it directly.TIP: Take the lead and ask your team for feedback: peers, managers, and reports.

Perhaps the best advice before having a difficult conversation is to prepare. Do your homework and ask questions like these: Who is your audience? How aware are they of the situation? What are their values, your values, and their risk to clash? How about the generational perspective? Always strive to be self-aware of your own tendencies to avoid, accommodate, compete, collaborate, compromise, etc.

What are the facts? (Facts include feelings: what are theirs, and yours?) Is there a pattern? What might you have done to contribute to the situation? What’s your motivation? What do you really want—and NOT want—from the conversation? What do you imagine the other person wants? What might be some mutual goals? What would be the “rose” vs. “thorns” in the discussion?

Whew, that’s a lot to take in and think about, but well worth your effort as you prepare to constructively break (melt?) the ice and heal the pain of a difficult situation. It’s a delicate dance of subtle balance. You will do well to take each step with deep and deliberate consideration, with potential flames unfanned by blame and critical judgment. Attitude is everything. You can do this.

Tags: improve workplace relationships, difficult conversations, tough talk