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Courageous Conversations

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"Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be."

An important way to inspire your team is to give and receive feedback. Many hear the word ‘feedback’ and automatically think about criticism and negative feelings. Giving and receiving feedback is often referred to as difficult or uncomfortable. The truth is, giving feedback means you care. Think about a time you had a wardrobe malfunction, or food stuck in your teeth, did a colleague or friend let you know? They did so because they care about you, and most likely you were grateful for the information. Providing team members with feedback helps them grow and improve, it is not meant to embarrass, belittle, or put-down. Having courageous conversations will set those around you up for success. The goal is to help the person receiving the feedback grow. Being mindful of your attitude and approach sets the tone for a positive productive conversation.


Being willing to courageously and tactfully address unwanted actions and behaviors on your team increases your organizations’ ability to reach its goals and provide excellent customer service. Like a report card, evaluations can show us how well we are doing, however they don’t show the necessary coaching that goes on between evaluations that will contribute to success. Have you received feedback in the past that left you feeling unmotivated and thinking, “Why should I even bother?” It most likely wasn’t the topic of the feedback itself that left you feeling that way, but the way the feedback was delivered. Offering feedback the right way can make a difference between having an employee who is motivated and contributes more and an employee who feels diminished. If we allow unwanted actions and behaviors to continue without offering helpful conversations, the rest of the team will become focused on why those unwanted behaviors aren’t being addressed and the organization will suffer from a loss of employee engagement. Customers often see the results from lack of constructive feedback in the form of poor customer service. What we permit we promote, if providing feedback is avoided, messages are sent to everyone that those actions are permitted.


Generally, actions or behaviors that don’t fit the norms or the desired culture for your organization. If your organization has a ‘Standards of Behavior’ or ‘Code of Conduct’ document these are great tools to inform and guide acceptable behavior. Here are some examples of behaviors that may prompt a courageous conversation:

  • Abrupt or disrespectful behavior or language
  • Passive or passive-aggressive actions or language
  • Complaining and/or gossiping
  • Talking “about” rather than “to” each other
  • Incongruent words and actions
  • Failure to comply with a policy, regulation, or Standard of Behavior such as; not wearing a name tag, tardiness, failure to document information, etc.
  • Actions or behavior that isn’t aligned to the organization’s goals and values
  • Low evaluation scores and under-performing results


Establish a Nurturing Relationship

  • Courageous conversations are best supported by a trusting, positive relationship.
  • Invest in your team members’ personal lives and have regular conversations with them from day one.
  • Your goal is to help your team, and you help because you care and are invested in their success.

Recognize Actions & Behaviors to Address

  • Set clear expectations for the desired culture and behaviors of your organization.
  • Consider a formal ‘Standards of Behavior’ or ‘Code of Conduct’ document all employees agree to.
  • Always role-model appropriate actions and behaviors, showing what right looks like.

Choose Appropriate Model for Compassionately Conducting Conversation

  • Stub Your Toe
    • Appropriate when the person initiating the conversation has seen or heard the offending behavior. Third parties should not initiate a conversation.
    • An official ‘leader’ role is not required for a Stub Your Toe conversation, it can be had between any two colleagues.
    • Best to use Stub Your Toe when the undesired behavior is a first-time occurrence, think of this conversation as a prevention method.
    • Keep the conversation short and focused on the behavior itself, 4 minutes or less.
    • This an example of what a Stub Your Toe conversation looks like.
    • If this is not the first time you have observed and address this behavior you should move on to the next courageous conversation model.
  • The Impact Message
    • Used for situations when the undesired behavior is persistent and disruptive to the team performance.
    • Can be used on another peer or leader who is exhibiting behavior inconsistent with leadership standards.
    • Impact messages focus on the “why,” enabling people to understand the impact of their actions and are a powerful tool to help shift employee’s behaviors.
    • This is an example of what an Impact Message sounds like. 
    • This method is not for use on a known low-performer, for those we move on to the third conversation model.
  • Low Performer Conversation
    • This conversation is designed to come only from leaders (making this conversation different from the previous two).
    • Previous performance documentation and communication with your supervisor and/or Human Resources is necessary before conducting this conversation.
    • Use the low performer conversation when the employee’s behavior continues to negatively impact the team or is detrimental to safety, despite setting clear expectations and providing training and education.
    • A low performer is unaware/unwilling, blames you for a problem, advocates for the status quo, complains about anything, acts in a passive-aggressive manner, and points out problems in a negative way.
    • It is crucial to address low performer behavior quickly and effectively, this is what a low performance conversation looks like.
    • Follow-up the conversation with an action plan for weekly meetings until the behavior/performance is corrected or more advanced consequences are appropriate.

Plan & Practice the Conversation

  • Ask another leader, colleague or friend to role play the conversation with you.
  • Remember the goal is to help the employee grow, not show them they were wrong.
  • Ask yourself what is the objective, what do you hope to accomplish from this conversation?
  • Consider how you will create a win-win scenario vs. a win-lose scenario.
  • Make notes and use your them during practice including any key words or specific phrases you want to say.
  • Document specific examples and data to support your conversation.

Agree on the Outcome

  • During your conversation invite the employee into the problem-solving process.
  • Ask: What ideas do you have? What are your take-aways from this conversation? What steps will you take, by when, and how will I know?
  • What will the consequences be if the action or behavior does not improve?
  • Document the conversation and the plan of action for behavior correction.

Follow-up & Follow-through

  • Low-performers have had corrective conversations before, but in most cases the lack of follow-through has allowed them to continue the behaviors.
  • Follow-up and Follow-through put words into action to show the employee that you care about their improvement.
  • If there is a lack of improvement the discussed consequences should be taken.

References: Cunningham, Lynn. (2015). Taking Conversations from Difficult to Doable: Three Models to Master Tough Conversations. Pensacola: Fire Starter Publishing.

Keane, Beth. (2011). Spinach in Your Teeth Messages: the Art of Giving (and Receiving) Honest Feedback.

Be specific

When providing feedback to colleagues and employees, focus on behaviors. As you and your conversation partner discuss an observed event or action, describe specifically what the individual did and the impact that it had. Use action verbs and narrate the sequence as you observed it; then describe what happened as a result. Often, we remember what we “think” we did, or intended to do, but we’re not self-aware enough to know what we actually did.