Sarah Johnson-Scott portrait

Written by Sarah Johnson-Scott

Vice Principal of a large secondary school in West London. January 2021 Cohort of The Academy of Women’s Leadership.

What is the purpose of a challenging conversation?

Are they opportunities to: raise your voice at others to give them a dressing down; shout at them for making a mistake; assert your power or position; gain compliance through fear and therefore stifle and destroy the creativity, problem solving skills and ultimately output of your team? No, no, NO!

Can they be avoided? NO! 

In highlighting that ‘the culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate,’ Gruenter and Whitaker show us the impact of not having challenging conversations. As leaders we will accept and be seen to accept behaviours which are not acceptable in the workplace – if we don’t care as leaders, then no one cares. There is only one ending to this; a toxic culture, where people are unhappy, are not collegiate and productivity is low. Toxic cultures take a grip like quicksand. They are extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible to overcome.

Is there support in ‘mastering challenging conversations?’ YES!

As part of The Academy of Women’s Leadership, the inspiring Diana Osagie led us through an excellent session on ‘How to master difficult conversations,’ across a range of contexts including challenging conversations, holding staff to account and dealing with difficult people. By providing us with three different scripts for leading challenging conversations in each of these contexts, Diana left us feeling empowered, courageous and brave about leading these in future.

What were the top 5 takeaways from Diana’s session?

  1. Remembering that the behaviour is theirs….so don’t apologise for your stance (you are the leader and you have decided that there is a reason for a challenging conversation). 
  2. Acknowledgement and acceptance that challenging conversations will test your courage and resilience.
  3. The challenging conversation scripts are invaluable – having a script to tweak when under pressure as a leader is extremely reassuring! They also support in running through the conversation and desired outcomes beforehand. 
  4. The stages of a challenging conversation (you will have to join The Academy of Women’s Leadership to find out what these are!)
  5. Get some support for yourself – find an appropriate person in your organisation you can talk to about the challenging conversation (they’ve almost definitely led these before).

 

What’s the future of challenging conversations?

As leaders we recognise that challenging conversations are part of our role, but more crucially are essential for a positive organisational culture, happy staff and excellent outcomes. If they are led with clarity and kindness, and are received appropriately, challenging conversations should promote growth (potentially on both sides) – otherwise what is the point? 

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