As a business consultant, it’s my job to question, challenge and occasionally call out my clients. It’s not always easy, but I know that if I want to help leaders to grow, I’ve got to be willing to lead by example and speak frankly. This is especially important when it comes to setting the tone and culture of a company. WHY IT'S IMPERATIVE LEADERS SPEAK THEIR TRUTH

That’s why I was baffled to read recent reports about how the UK Prime Minister’s two former aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, were allowed to behave. Negative briefings against the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sending text messages containing expletives to cabinet ministers. And bullying behaviour towards MPs. These behaviours are indicative of a highly negative and toxic culture where senior aides seemly felt that they could behave without impunity.

When Leaders Don’t Speak Up

So bad was their behaviour that former Director of Communications, Katie Perrior described a “toxic” operation at No10, laying the blame squarely on Hill and Timothy. She claimed they were largely allowed by the PM to carry out “rude, childish behaviour,” without fear of reprisal.

“It was pretty dysfunctional. The atmosphere would be great if the chiefs of staff weren’t there – and terrible if they were,” Perrior said. “What I could never work out was whether Mrs May condoned their behaviour or didn’t understand how destructive they both were.”

The Courage To Speak Up

Leadership means having the courage to speak up, even (especially) when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And even if it means upsetting people close to you.

I’ve called a couple of people out publicly myself recently.

  • I challenged an arrogant and frankly sexist post on Facebook written by a business coach about how he was going to share his wisdom with an all-female audience.
  • I called out another business coach for calling a woman ‘a whore’ while simultaneously criticising her behaviour as un-feminist.

Frankly it would have been far easier to keep quiet. But how can I say I’m a champion for women’s empowerment and equality if I don’t challenge what I perceive to be blatant and public examples of sexism myself?

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Avoidance Is Far Easier

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about sticking my head above the parapet, and getting it shot off. And I’m not alone. According to a survey of British workers by the Chartered Management Institute, 57% of managers would do almost anything to avoid having a difficult conversation. While 52% would prefer to stay in a negative situation rather than tackle it.

I’m part of that 52%.  When conflict is called for, there’s always an internal debate in my head. I run through a list of my preferred avoidance tactics in my head before telling myself to ‘put my big girl’s pants on’ and have that difficult conversation. Because if I don't, I'd be failing as a leader.

I regard having difficult conversations as integral to strong leadership. Fundamental to leadership is integrity. If you’re not willing to speak up in furtherance of your truth, then you’re out of integrity. Plain and simple.

Think TALK

I’m lucky that I’ve had training on how to deal with difficult conversations in the workplace. This has given me a framework to use when having those tricky discussions, and the confidence to speak up. If you haven’t had training or are lacking confidence, the Chartered Management Institute has come up with a helpful mnemonic to help business leaders navigate such meetings with their staff. It’s called TALK.

T – Think about framing how you think about the conversation differently. Don’t label it as ‘difficult’. It may be about a tricky subject but, by suggesting solutions or alternatives, you can focus on constructive outcomes.

A – Always use clear, simple and neutral language. Refer to specific examples and facts.

L – Listen to what the other person is saying and hear their point of view. Show you care about how they see things.

K – Keep the focus on the issue, not the person.

By remembering the ‘TALK’ mnemonic, you can have more constructive conversations at work.

It’s not easy to be brave and speak our truth. But the more you do so, the easier it gets. I promise!

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Join The Conversation Question: Is there a difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding? What would have to be true to put your metaphorical ‘big girl’s pants’ on? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.

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Work With Me

I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO.

I’d love to start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together. Simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.