How To Have Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Have you ever disagreed with a co-worker? I’m not talking about a disagreement on how to approach a work project but instead, a disagreement with their views on diversity, inclusion or other more political stances. Did you engage them in a conversation on why you disagree, or did you just choose not to engage?

In the past, I tended to go for the latter — deciding that it wasn’t my place to have conversations with members of my team about their beliefs or the values they hold in the workplace. That is until I encountered members of my team whose views of the world seemed in direct contradiction with the values we hold as a company.

Individuals become leaders, because people trust and believe in them. They live up to their word, honor boundaries, treat everyone equitably and hold others accountable when they cross a line. Over the past two years, I’ve had to hold myself and my team members accountable to our commitment of “happy people, happy and diverse culture.” I’ve had to have conversations with members of my team who had differing opinions, with the goal of trying to reach an understanding of our differences and determine if our company was really the best place for them.

Holding people accountable — especially family members, friends and even our teammates — is easier said than done. We’re often tempted to avoid uncomfortable conversations, but it’s precisely the discomfort we feel that should be a signal to talk about and resolve it.

It’s okay to disagree

It can be hard to approach controversial conversations not knowing the outcome or all the right things to say. It’s important to remember that part of the process is messing up, saying the wrong thing, apologizing and learning how to do better. In a polarized world where people with one political viewpoint or another are only consuming information from sources that validate their opinions, responsible leaders can open up new spaces for more authentic conversation.

One of our company objectives at Quantum Metric is a healthy and diverse culture, because we recognize that creating an equitable workplace won’t happen on its own. Backed by a diverse workforce across genders, ethnicities and even cognitive abilities, leaders can make better decisions more effectively, run businesses that earn more money and help employees feel more represented and heard. Creating an environment that is inclusive of and supports diverse teams involves encouraging and mediating tough conversations around highly charged social issues.

Leaders who promote diversity have a responsibility to create an inclusive and safe space to protect and refine those values within a team. The point isn’t to only hire or work with those who think the exact same way as you do. What’s needed are boundaries that ensure each and every member of your team can feel heard, safe and included. Having those tough conversations grants you the opportunity to disagree and understand what side of that boundary someone might fall on. With that culture, comes a multitude of opinions — ones we, as leaders, agree with and ones we don’t.

Poking holes can be a good thing

My son is 12 now, but at an early age, he learned to poke at the boundaries his mom and I set up for him. Learning about boundaries is an important part of childhood development, but it was equally important for him to question and discuss certain rules with us, even if he didn’t get his way in the end.

In the same way, an ethical leader needs to establish boundaries for their team to feel safe and grow, but also allow people to question those boundaries in a healthy way. When employees question a company’s policies, leaders can call out areas that may be unnecessary, out of date or in need of adjustment.

If someone falls out of line with the company’s diversity policies, first, give them an opportunity to open their minds with a conversation. Let them poke holes, but step in with facts when their criticisms fly wide off the mark. If they refuse to examine their fixed mindset and their presence makes others feel unsafe or undervalued, a leader needs to realize when someone will never represent who they are as a company.

Standing by your values is tough, but there are times when leaders need to draw that line, no matter who bends the rules — even when they do it themselves.

Hard conversations are for learning, not winning

A true leader knows that good conversations are about learning, not winning, especially when someone disagrees. Being open to hearing another’s experiences is an opportunity to better understand their opinion and how it might be affecting their work or the team. This openness goes both ways — employees with more experience in social issues might think a company’s approach to diversity could be better, while other employees might stand in direct conflict with it. Leaders demonstrate a willingness to listen to disparate points of view, not to let someone else win, but to determine whether this person’s disagreement can be regarded as aligned with their organization.

In recent years, social media has facilitated tougher conversations than ever before. This is how we keep getting better and start to right society’s wrongs. For me, having tough conversations with my team prompts me to learn about and understand issues I might not have thought about otherwise. So, when my daughter comes to me asking about the struggles of transgender teens, for example, I can have that conversation with her in a more informed way.

The power to accelerate social change is in our hands every time we choose to have hard conversations. We spend most of our waking hours at work, and global disruptions, waves of change and political pressures don’t just happen after 5:00. There’s an opportunity to do more than achieve business success, and it starts with having open, honest, and yes, sometimes difficult discussions with one another.

Author Profile

Adam Regan
Adam Regan
Deputy Editor

Features and account management. 3 years media experience. Previously covered features for online and print editions.


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