Effective Leaders Seek Uncomfortable Conversations

Marcia Reynolds, Author, The Discomfort Zone

Effective Leaders Seek Uncomfortable Conversations

The greatest asset of a CEO is having a pipeline of mentally developed leaders who actively seek to learn more about themselves and their work. A bench of leaders who are constantly growing their minds ensure successful management, transitions, and a sustainable competitive advantage.

The vision painted above is rarely what is true for any company. An open-minded leadership team is a rare phenomenon.

Few leaders openly explore what could be true outside of what they know. Fewer allow others to question their points of view. The more successful leaders become, the less likely they will be open to letting anyone else change their minds and behavior.

The problem is related to biology, not personality. The brain’s primary function is to protect. Whatever has helped a person succeed –business savvy, great ideas, broad knowledge of the marketplace – is what they learn to defend. As Steve Tobak says in Why Leaders Resist Change, “…those who have the greatest impact on corporate performance -- not to mention the livelihoods and investment portfolios of millions of employees and shareholders -- are the most resistant to feedback and change.”

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman said in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, society cultivates “…our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.”

Leaders strive to feel confident about their choices, to have the answers under pressure, and to rightly respond to adversity. Most leaders want to be boldly decisive. This desire to feel confident in what “I know to be true” makes it harder to listen to others and accept new ideas.

Having a sense of confidence in who you are is good for yourself and others around you. Feeling absolute confidence in what you know is risky. In this complex, fast changing, and full-of-surprises world, it is impossible to have all the answers. 

The best answers are not in any individual but in cooperative, yet uncomfortable, conversations. This requires the CEO foster opportunities where leaders can challenge each other in safe but heated discussions. Here are steps you can take to expand the minds of your leadership team:

  • Be courageous enough to model “not having all the answers.” An open mind is willing to listen, learn, and grow. As Malcolm Gladwell said in Blink, “We need to accept our ignorance and say ‘I don’t know’ more often.” The more you feel confident saying, “I don’t know, let’s talk about it,” the more clarity you will gain about the best options for solving a problem or carrying out a strategy.
  • Allow decisions to emerge from conversations. No matter how smart someone is, thinking through a complex issue can rarely be done well in isolated analysis. As described in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, for the same reason you can’t tickle yourself, you can’t fully explore your own thoughts and attack your own ideas. The brain naturally blocks self-imposed exploration. When someone else challenges your reasoning and dares to ask you a question that penetrates your protective frames, your consciousness can go to new depths. You might get defensive, but if you stop and consider the questions, the brain will synthesize the new insight into a new awareness that can be used to make the best decisions.
  • Practice questioning each other’s judgment until it becomes standard practice. These conversations shouldn’t feel like inquests; they should feel like valuable operating procedures for making the best decisions. This is the only way an individual or an entire group can counter bad decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time.
  • Teach "disruptive conversation skills" to all leaders in your organization. This mind-expansion skill is not only essential for preparing the workforce for the changes the future will require, it is important for filling the leadership pipeline. Organizations where leaders at all levels are able to respectfully challenge the thinking and expand the perspective of others keep the company agile and the leadership pipeline flowing and strong.

The best leaders make us feel unsure of ourselves. The moment of uncertainty is when you stop and question what you think you know. This moment is when you are most open to learning. When you see your blind spots, you may feel embarrassed, sad, or angry for not seeing these truths before. And then, you grow. Uncomfortable conversations help everyone make the right decisions for the right reasons.

About the Author

Dr. Marcia Reynolds has spent over 30 years working with global corporations in executive coaching and leadership training. She is the author of three books, Outsmart Your Brain, Wander Woman (for high-achieving women) and her new book, The Discomfort Zone. Learn more at her website, OutsmartYourBrain.com.