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Why good leaders embrace the 'cringe moment'

July 16, 2014

    Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

    Hey, readers.

    This story is going to make some of you angry.

    Ok—that's not how I'd normally start a blog post. But it keeps with advice from Peter Bregman, a CEO coach writing at Harvard Business Review last week.

    Bregman was discussing how leaders—or really, anyone—can "start a conversation you're dreading." Too often, he says, mangers don't directly address difficult staff issues because the conversations makes managers feel awkward or uncomfortable. 

    Alternately, managers may try to have those conversations...but spend so much time building up to their primary message, or delivering it so circuitously, that staff end up confused and without enough time to grapple with what their manager is actually saying.

    According to Bregman,

      Next time you have a conversation you’re dreading ... [g]et to the conclusion in the first sentence. Cringe fast and cringe early. 

      It’s a simple move that few of us make consistently because it requires emotional courage. At least the first time.

    As evidence of why a manager needs to broach difficult conversations with staff, Bregman relates an example from his own career. One of his employees had steadily underperformed and didn't meet expectations, but Bregman had kept putting off his tough feedback. 

    By the time, Bregman was able to sit down to deliver his message to the employee, "the conversation promised to be even more awkward and uncomfortable" because he had waited so long to have it. "The cringe quotient had gone up," he adds.

    Also see the full Q&A: How to start a conversation you're dreading

    Bregman's exhortations to confront difficult moments seems like good advice. But is it always right to "lead with the punchline" in a meeting or when managing—especially when the news is negative?   

    I asked Mike Wagner, the Advisory Board's Chief Teaching Officer and a fellow Harvard Business Review contributor, for his take.

    "We would argue that especially when the news is negative, you should lead with the 'bad news first,'" Mike told me. "People are perceptive and they can tell when something negative is about to be said. To delay the news is to both disrespect your colleagues and damage your own credibility."

    "And delaying the negative is disrespectful because it takes away the colleague’s opportunity to receive the news, react to it, ask questions—it treats them as fragile and difficult, rather than as a professional who seeks the truth," he added.

    So what are the steps to delivering a negative message—to successfully navigating a "cringe moment"? Keep it simple and direct, Mike says, and stick to three basic steps. 

    1. Negative news: Articulate the negative behaviors to be corrected or the negative news to be delivered;
    2. Reasons: Explain what would have been acceptable behavior or why the negative decision was necessary; and
    3. Next steps: Explain what will happen if the negative behavior continues, how the employee can be considered for future opportunities, and/or what the staff member is expected to do in support of the decision.

    Update: Given reader interest, we've put the entire interview with Mike Wagner online.

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