Prickly discussion topics have been rippling through workplaces since 2020, and today’s leaders are getting plenty of industry advice about how to handle them. Just check out these business journal headlines:
“How to moderate the work-from-home debates that are dividing companies nationwide.”
“How to facilitate conversations with your team about social unrest and lapses in equality.”
“How to neutralize tensions when your staff members come from different sides of the political spectrum.”
Apparently it’s not enough that leaders are expected to be operations experts, budget masters, performance coaches and career managers. Now they are also supposed to be mediators, moderators, negotiators, and public relations specialists.
On one hand, I get it. Coworkers are inevitably going to talk about the day’s hot topics. They have the right to be honest about what they need to be at their best. Likewise, leaders have a vested interest in making their organizations more inclusive, helping people feel safe in expressing business ideas, and (when possible) accommodating team members who want to work remotely.
But let’s be honest here:
I’m hearing from many leaders who feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to juggle the sometimes-conflicting demands of delivering results and ensuring their people feel heard. One leader summed it up like this:
“I want my employees to be able to share their ideas and express their opinions but, at the end of the day, I still need to meet our business objectives.”
Here’s the glaring question for me: How can I help leaders who find themselves thinking the same thing? I’d like to share some of my insights on the subject—along with those of several other thought leaders—in the following five strategies.
The first two strategies apply to senior executives or those responsible for helping leaders manage the tension between these ever-evolving demands.
1. Make your organization’s values strong and clear
Leaders can feel immense pressure when asked to provide space for their employees to discuss fiercely debated subjects like return-to-work schedules, mask mandates, or current events that aren’t in alignment with a company’s core principles. According to Anh Phillips, Global CEO Program research director for Deloitte and co-author of the newly released book, Work Better Together, when a company’s values are clear, leaders can use them as their North Star for those discussions.
“When companies or teams have cultures driven by a strong set of values—like respect for your colleagues or a willingness to show empathy—leaders have a big advantage,” Phillips explains. “If they approach highly charged topics through the lens of those shared values, there’s a greater chance of finding common ground that leads to better discussions and outcomes.”
2. Provide proper training
When political conversations became a flashpoint before and after the 2020 presidential election, many leaders were at a loss for how to handle the friction. In fact, a Gartner HR survey found that nearly two-thirds of managers (64%) nationwide had not been provided with resources for navigating political discussions with their employees. That’s a problem.
If your organization’s response to handling tough conversations about thorny social and political topics involves listening circles or team town halls, consider having your HR leaders own this process. They likely have the skills and knowledge to strategically guide groups through the land-mine topics.
But if your company is relying on front-line leaders to handle those discussions, make sure you are giving them the tools they need. These leaders deserve to be prepared with ample training, a clear set of expectations, and a compelling roadmap.
The remaining strategies apply to leaders and managers at all levels.
3. Keep the focus on solving the work group’s problem
Combine the 24-hour news cycle with the proliferation of social media, and you get employees who are remarkably informed about the intricacies of border security, climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement. Discussions and disagreements are inevitable. Bryan Leuenberger, operations consultant and former technology executive, believes that people are consumed by these external narratives in our world because “that’s what is juicy.”
Leuenberger’s solution? Compete for those employees’ mindshare by capturing their interest.
“Identify the problem your work group needs to solve, and share it in a way that’s so compelling people WANT to give it their full attention,” he adds. “Employees want to be part of a cause, so emphasize the ‘why’ part of your mission. That’s the key to regaining their mindshare and maintaining a productive team.”
In other words, you can’t eliminate the outside noise. But you can create something so powerful that it keeps the focus on your team goals.
4. Loop employees in on decision-making
The post-pandemic return-or-work-from-home controversy is a perfect example of this. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, but few organizations have reached a clear consensus on the ideal solution. Your best bet to keep from feeling held hostage by a list of demands from your employees is to include them in the conversation as much as possible. And keep the focus on “what they need to perform at optimal levels” rather than just “what they want.”
Provide them with information on all the metrics, customer requirements, and deliverables that are expected. When team members can see clearly what has to happen to meet team objectives, serve the client and comply with regulations, they are more likely to get on board with the decision. Plus, they’ll also see the benefits of being flexible in the event the final plans don’t align with their personal preferences.
5. Give employees some ownership in the discussion process
In her research, Deloitte’s Anh Phillips found that companies thrive when everyone is empowered, encouraged to be a leader (title or not), and held equally accountable for results.
Leaders may be relieved to know they don’t have to be solely responsible for facilitating all tough conversations. Anh even recommends approaching employees who express a desire for team discussions on a difficult topic and asking for their suggestions about how to proceed. If they are able to do so in a productive way, consider giving them the opportunity to lead the conversation, with your sponsorship and support.
One final note on this topic. Don’t let these conversations occur without any follow-up. Listen carefully to what is being discussed. There may be opportunities to address the heart of these issues through changes in practices or behaviors to create a better work environment.
No doubt about it, leaders today have their hands full—trying to reach exponentially higher performance goals while creating safe psychological spaces for employees to share their concerns and opinions. Do you think those expectations are unrealistic? Better yet, what advice would you give to leaders who want to deliver AND dedicate time to listening to their teams? I’d love to hear your perspective.”
In the meantime, stay safe and continue learning.