Promote Cultures Where Conversation Empowers Performance

Promote Cultures Where Conversation Empowers Performance

Workplace culture is shaped from the top down. One of the costliest mistakes to organizations is the inability or unwillingness of its leaders to successfully facilitate difficult conversations. The difficulty may lie in the manager’s skill level. He or she simply doesn’t know how to coach an employee on a performance issue. Or a leader may be embarrassed to talk with an employee about careless social skills. Or the difficulty may be a more complex cultural issue that goes unseen until the problem becomes national news.

For example, recently at Uber, a female engineer reported a sexual harassment incident to the Human Resources leader. This leader allegedly avoided initiating a conversation because the accused was a high performer. Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, who says he was unaware of the problem, quickly became aware of the mega-cost associated with avoidance and denial.

A mega-cost affects three areas: time, money, reputation. Looking at Uber’s desperate situation, we can easily imagine the astronomical costs associated with initiating an investigation, paying for legal fees, and defending bad press going viral across the internet.

When it comes to your organization, these financial and social risks can be significantly reduced by crafting a culture where open and honest dialogue nurtures and endorses performance. Three steps to facilitate this approach are: get commitment from the C-Suite, offer skills training, and make behavior part of performance.

Get Commitment from the C-Suite

No matter what the policy manual says, supervisors and managers avoid difficult conversations if they think they won’t be backed up by the organizational leaders. Managers and employees know that what goes on the walls is often different than what goes on in the halls. In short, even though the mission on the bulletin board speaks about a commitment to communication, the actual behaviors may be misaligned.

Executives need to support the change initiative and model the desired behavior. Larry Senn, a pioneer in the field of corporate culture reminds us in his article on Culture University that “organizations tend to become shadows of their leaders over time.” My suggestion is for C-Suite leaders to get trained on how to initiate difficult conversations, then share new insights about the discomfort and learnings with mid-level managers. When top leaders start initiating their own difficult conversations and understand the difficulty in doing so, they are more willing to support leadership development for middle-level leaders.

Offer Skills Training

Initiating difficult conversations is not something that comes naturally to most of us. As a result new and seasoned leader’s alike struggle, stumble, or avoid difficult conversations. How you know it’s a skills issue can be determined by listening. For example, when coaching a leader to initiate a conversation about performance, the leader said, “I’ve already told him a thousand times.” This lets me know the leader does not understand how to hold the employee accountable to a measurable standard.

Or, when I hear, “I’m afraid the employee will cry,” I know that the leader needs the skill of setting the right intention and keeping the conversation on track. When I hear a general statement about an employee’s bad attitude, I know that the leader needs to learn the skill of speaking to the observable behavior. When a leader tells me she can’t stay on track in the conversation, it becomes clear that she needs a process for facilitating the conversation, or the skill to identify and avoid distractions.

Skills training develops the awareness and practice that manager’s need to successfully do one of their most difficult jobs: initiate difficult conversations for the purpose of improving performance. Skills training works when the structures in the culture provide support for these important performance conversations. Skills and conversations are useless if there are hidden agreements about what to ignore and what to let slide. That is why behavior must be part of performance expectations.

Make Behavior Part of Performance

Recently, I asked an executive client, “I wonder why behavior is not considered part of a performance evaluation.”

“It is,” she replied.

“If so, why do so many managers here avoid conversations with the bully, just because he or she is a top performer?” I asked.

In Uber’s case, assuming the cultural reason for avoiding was due to the fear of losing a top performer, then we can assume that behavior is not part of how that organization evaluates overall performance. The message given culturally is misaligned and confusing. It is as if the organization is saying, “If you can make rain, go ahead and bully. If you are the only one with the secret code, sexual harassment will be ignored. Go ahead and act inappropriately.”

Corporate leaders must understand the risk of a mega-cost when behavior is not part of performance expectations.


Culture plays a major role in a leader’s ability and willingness to initiate and follow through on a difficult conversation. Leaders who avoid difficult conversations put the company at risk of lost time, unnecessary financial expense, and bad public relations exposure. If you want to promote a culture where conversations improve performance, do these things: get commitment from the C-suite and model direct open communication; support middle managers in their decision-making; make behaviors a part of performance conversations, and offer critical communication skills development for leaders at every level.

I welcome and look forward to your thoughts and comments on social media. 

About the Author

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Marlene Chism

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker, and author of Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley 2011), No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015), and 7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice  (Greenbranch 2018).