Hard Conversations: Why You Need Them, And How To Have Them

Have you ever been hit with a “Professional Gut Punch?”

Maybe you suddenly realized you’d been underpaid.
Maybe you were passed up for a promotion you were expecting.
Even worse, maybe your boss gave that promotion to (a less deserving) someone else.

A Professional Gut Punch (PGP) is one of those moments that create a clear before and after in your mind. I’ve taken a couple of them myself. They hurt. And I completely lost trust in my boss after it happened—as is the case with everyone else I’ve talked to about this subject.

Now, you’d think that the boss in question had to have known what they were doing. But shockingly often, they don’t, at least not beforehand.

Every day, plenty of moral, kind-hearted leaders like you are throwing PGPs at their team members.

Why?

Let me illustrate with Jane’s story.

A distraught Jane called to tell me about a recent re-org. Her department and her area of expertise got moved under another group. And someone in this group already had a virtually identical job to Jane’s.

Jane and her counterpart—let’s call her Karen—have the same years of experience. Their job descriptions are the same, too. The only difference between them is that Karen has a higher title (which, by the way, Jane thinks was given prematurely) and more experience working with their new manager.

You can imagine why Jane was calling me. She was told, “You’re not getting the job.” The leadership position had gone to Karen. Jane said to me that reporting to Karen would be tantamount to a demotion.

At this point in the conversation, I asked Jane if she’d be willing to do something a bit unconventional. I invited her to see the situation from her manager’s point of view.

Her anger and hurt were real and justified. But after the exercise, she could see that what else was true about the situation:

  1. Yes, her new boss needed to make a fast decision.

  2. Yes, the boss (due to the title situation and his experience with Karen) could justify the decision publically if he chose Karen.

  3. Yes, if her boss had picked Jane over Karen, that might have led to an equally if not more negative outcome.

Managers, here comes the part in the story that you don’t want to miss.

THE “WHY” IS USUALLY CLEAR AND THOUGHT THROUGH FOR THE MANAGER MAKING THE BUSINESS DECISION. BUT SO OFTEN, THE “WHY” ISN’T APPARENT AT ALL TO THE PERSON WHO’S IMPACTED BY IT.

I asked Jane, “If your boss had walked you through these three considerations and helped you understand his constraints, would you have been quite as angry?”

The answer was no. Jane wouldn’t have been happy, but her boss would have maintained her trust. She wouldn’t have immediately started looking for a new role. It’s entirely likely Jane’s manager meant well. The PGP was avoidable.

Being in a leadership role often means you have to have some hard conversations. It’s tempting to minimize the discomfort by keeping them short and, in your mind, to the point. But in doing so, we end up not sharing the “why” with the other person and damaging that relationship.

In full honesty, I haven’t knocked it out of the park in this department every time myself. When my messaging was off, I’ve felt the impact of it.

So a couple of thoughts on how not to turn your “no” into a PGP.

  1. Put yourself in their shoes. If you were in their situation, how would you feel?

  2. Take a beat. It’s always better to ask for more time to answer difficult questions if you aren’t ready. And no, this isn’t permission to put the problem off forever.

  3. Practice with someone. Thinking through an answer and talking through an answer are two different things. Find someone – an HR business partner, a mentor – you trust to practice your delivery. We rarely practice delivering bad news. And if we miss the mark, the implications are far-reaching.

However good your intentions, however crazy things are, take the time to get our “no” conversations right. PGPs are the fastest way for your team to lose trust in you. Lost trust is a path you don’t want to go down.

And remember, it’s not the disappointing news itself that leaves the person devastated beyond recovery, it’s HOW the news is shared that makes that lasting impact.

Saying no is hard. But you, the awesome manager, can do this. Fumble through it at first. We all do when we’re learning something new.

You and your team are worth it.

PS. And for you, the recipient of a PGP: The best way forward is to remove the hurt by seeing the incident through another perspective, just as Jane did. You may choose to head for the door. You may go back to your boss and have the conversation you should’ve had before the PGP. I’ve gone both ways myself, and in either case, I’ve found removing the hurt to be critical to taking back ownership of my career path. Please don’t let the emotional fallout of a PGP define where yours is going.

PPS. Does taking the hurt out and coming into acceptance still sound like counterintuitive advice? Here’s some research that will help you better understand how it works.