In the bestselling book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time, author Susan Scott asks her readers to encourage rather than avoid difficult conversations. And so do we.
What I personally find interesting about Fierce Conversations is that, unlike many business books, it is not particularly academic. The book is sold on a concept, and it’s a powerful concept at that. Its power lies in its simplicity. Leaders are people. People get emotional. Rather than hide these emotions, use them to your advantage by having honest conversations with others. This helps you avoid internal dead-end conversations with yourself or, potentially worse, expressing emotions in a way that is damaging to both parties.
“The conversation is the relationship. Business is fundamentally an extended conversation with colleagues, customers, and the unknown future emerging around us. What gets talked about in a company and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen,” Scott states in the book. “A leader’s job is to engineer the types of conversations that produce epiphanies. A fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, into the conversation, and make it real. It is the unreal conversation that should scare us to death.”
Of course, as a company that prides itself on being refreshingly direct, we know that the act of conducting fierce conversations is often more easily said than done. Leaders around the world have been taught to hide their emotions so that people, be they employees, peers, customers or competitors, perceive a wall of strength. But the fact is, when conversations are stilted by a fear of feelings or a fear of ‘being known’, poor leadership is the inevitable result. Those same people – employees, peers, customers or competitors, are not engaged. And if they are not engaged, they are not connected.
Recently we worked with a client who wanted to run a leadership programme. The goal was to inspire employees and help them progress within the company. To do this, conversations were to be held between employees and senior leaders with no line management connection. Eight out of nine divisions wanted to conduct and maintain confidentiality as a core part of those conversations in order to build employee trust, giving staff the confidence to share comments and concerns. This promise of confidentiality would allow individuals to freely share their internal dialogue and, where appropriate, engage in fierce conversations without fear of repercussions.
One division of the company, however, wanted this confidentiality to be conditional. If it was identified that an existing employee was planning to leave, for example, they wanted to be able to escalate that conversation to the individual’s line manager, without disclosure, in order to keep them on side. Rather than trusting that their leaders would be skilled enough in conversation to be an effective sounding board and sell that person on the value of the company if required, this decision sacrificed the spirit of the project – all for a quick win.
Fierce conversations are difficult and they take practice from both leaders and followers. To ensure the success of these conversations, stated values such as confidentiality cannot be conditional. Had our client allowed their employees to be emotionally transparent with senior leaders, this effort could have set them up for success when having similar conversations with their line manager. However, people aren’t going to have fierce conversations if these conversations are not based on shared values. Consistency is key and trust is paramount.
We have come across other challenges when implementing this approach to business – and these are cultural ones. This is due to the fact that some people rally against the word ‘fierce.’ This is particularly the case in cultures where the word can be seen as aggressive. In Japan, for example, people feel more comfortable with words such as ‘courageous’. But when we translate its true meaning – that fierce conversations are about pushing the boundaries of communications – the concept is generally embraced. Interestingly, younger generations are almost instantly and universally on board with the idea.
Whatever you choose to call these conversations, it all comes down to your mindset. Leaders must be willing to speak honestly and seek honesty, with the end goal of understanding. This book’s success comes as no surprise to us then, as this is ultimately what good conversation – and great leadership – is all about.
For more information on how to encourage meaningful conversations in your business, contact us today. For more of our thoughts on leadership bestsellers, as well as interviews with the authors themselves, read our column on The Huffington Post.