Conflict at work is inevitable. Whether with colleagues, teammates, or even clients, sometimes we disagree, notice an area of performance improvement, or just need to call out bad behavior. Yet it can be all too easy to avoid saying anything, hoping the issue will resolve itself or have it become someone else’s problem.

But the difference between a merely good leader and a great leader often comes down to their ability to choose bravery over fear in the toughest moments and lean into having the tough conversations. Engaging in direct feedback and handling disagreements openly is key to developing transparent, trusting cultures and raising the next generation of leaders. But like any great leadership skill, it takes practice to cultivate, along with an awareness of the gendered double-standards at play.

Women learn at a young age that displeasing can be dangerous, so we become people pleasers,” says Rae. This can show up both in and outside of the workplace, with women leaders receiving backlash when giving constructive feedback due to acting outside of their expected “empathetic” and “nurturing” role. “People pleasing makes an honest, difficult conversation almost impossible,” says Rae. If you go into every conversation trying to have them still like you or maintain a certain perception, the feedback can come out unclear or worse, never given. Opinions, therefore, are forced underground or spoken behind closed doors, resulting in a culture of toxic niceness where psychological safety becomes threatened.

Rather, the key to balancing this tightrope of delivering constructive feedback while still being empathetic may require some inward assessments. First, evaluate whether you have a strong sense of self — are you comfortable with receiving criticism? As a starting point, Morgana Rae, Chief Executive Officer at Charmed Life Coaching, employs what she calls the 2% rule. “What if this criticism of me or my work is 2% true? Can I own that 2% and be okay with myself? How can I integrate that 2% and move forward?” she asks. “The better we handle ourselves, the healthier boundaries we will have with the other person in the conversation.”

If you think this conversation will be poorly received, then the message will come out that way. “Women need to get into a state of equanimity and optimism first, before [having] difficult conversations.” Remembering why you’re delivering the feedback will help you communicate it in a way that it’s meant to be received, which is to be helpful, versus worrying about how the conversation will reflect back on you.

In addition to thinking about a positive outcome, leaders should go into the conversation with the goal of creating an open space for a two-way dialogue. “So often we believe we have the answer without a complete understanding of what's happening from the other person's perspective,” says Rhonda Y. Williams, executive coach and Chief Executive Officer at Dream Life Leadership Academy. “When leaders hold themselves accountable for fostering collaborative discussions, it is easier to move forward together.”

Shari Hofer, Chief Marketing Officer at Wiley, also engages in a few rules to ensure feedback is dealt with within the appropriate context. She uses a 24-hour rule to ensure she gives feedback within a day when possible; otherwise, if it’s feedback for someone on her team, she’ll include it in a larger performance conversation, and keep it separate from any pay or advancement conversations so that it can be taken in the spirit of improvement over perfectionism. She also tries to be transparent that she has something to share (i.e. no vague “catch-up” meeting invites), and gets to the point as soon as possible in the conversation. Concrete examples always help ground a conversation as well.

People don’t always respond to direct feedback positively right away, so maintaining a calm and centered demeanor through the hard parts can help guide the other person into mirroring the behavior. “The quality of your presence and being is still more important than anything you say,” reminds Rae.

Negative responses are often in direct proportion to the other person’s own sense of guilt, shame, or panic, so it can help to give the person an opportunity to be a problem solver as well. Questions like, What is your solution to this problem? Or, What do you suggest? can allow the person to be a part of the solution, says Rae.

Feedback, whether good or bad, is essential for all employees, but also tends to be forgotten or ignored among high achievers — who often need the most direct feedback in order to guide them into the C-level pipeline. Hofer remembers working with a rising leader who wanted to work directly with the CEO but wasn’t quite there yet. “She had the expertise and just needed to work on how she delivered it,” says Hofer. “I was upfront with her about why she was not ready. At first, she was disappointed, but through collaborating together, I helped her gain the necessary skills and confidence to eventually handle meetings with our CEO and other members of the C-suite.” By helping rising talent accurately understand their current strengths and weaknesses, leaders can help pave the path to the desired end goal.

Whether we’re in conversation with rising stars, clients, or colleagues, we become better leaders when we cultivate our own tolerance for conflict and engage in the direct conversations needed to protect and build the company’s values.

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