By Brent Gleeson
As a leader at any level, whether you are in Human Resources or not, you will be confronted with the challenge of navigating the “effective communication” landscape. As an entrepreneur who has worn many hats growing several companies from the ground up, I have pretty much seen it all when comes to dealing with sensitive topics. Often times, those issues are not necessarily work-related but still affect the person’s emotions and ability to perform. Mentorship and communication are an important part of leadership.
Within any high-performance team, your people are the biggest asset and should be treated as such. Over the years, I have had many employees come to me for advice and guidance on everything from leadership development and productivity to stress management.
In any leadership situation, there is a time for talking and a time for listening. In my previous companies we have always evangelized an open-door policy. And although we stress chain of command and respecting management hierarchy, sometimes people just feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics with those they trust the most. Right or wrong, that is the reality.
Usually these sensitive issues regard topics such as feeling underutilized by their manager, a conflict with a co-worker, stress or even personal issues that are precluding the employee from accomplishing their work. And sometimes topics that are much more personal. Fostering a culture of trust and transparency encourages employees to feel that they can share obstacles standing in the way of achieving their goals. Whatever those obstacles may be.
As mentioned in several previous articles, I have been conducting research and collecting data for my new book on the future of how we define leadership and leadership development. Clearly, effective communication is part of that. But one colleague in particular stood out, because he specializes in dealing with sensitive situations on a regular basis. Not with employees necessarily, though I am sure it happens, but with clients.
Charles Lipcon is a maritime lawyer and works with clients who are victims of cruise ship rape. Many of Lipcon’s clients were raped while taking a cruise during a vacation. “It is important to be sensitive to the victims of sexual assault. For the most part, it is painful for them to discuss the violation that has occurred,” Lipcon says.
As many know, harassment and even assault can happen in the workplace and cripple a company. Lawsuits ensue and insurance premiums go through the roof, or of course, the company simply gets dropped from their provider. I’ve seen it happen in other companies and written about it in my column before.
Lipcon says there are a few key steps for effective listening and communication when dealing with sensitive issues. They are as follows:
Step 1: Show empathy and listen intently.
The person has already put themselves in a vulnerable position by coming forward in the first place. It is imperative to be empathetic to their position and listen. Body language and eye contact go a long way. Lean in and be attentive.
Step 2: When appropriate, ask questions to better understand the issue.
It doesn’t stop with just listening. But wait until you have all the data before asking questions. Don’t be the person thinking about what you want to say or ask while the other person is talking.
Charles Lipcon says, “It is very important to have a conversation with my clients that involves asking questions to fully understand what happened. Usually the client is the most knowledgeable person as to the facts.”
The person came forward for a reason and part of a leader’s job is to gather the best data at hand in order to make decisions and provide direction.
Step 3: Exhibit loyalty and provide guidance.
It’s not always easy and you want to be careful about the advice you give, but that’s one of the burdens of command. People look to you for guidance. You can’t just shut them out and tell them to go talk to their manager, especially if they clearly trust your opinion. Command and control leadership doesn’t work in these situations. Reinforce chain of command when appropriate and show compassion when the situation calls for it.
Loyalty leads to trust and trust leads to high performing teams. And while the appropriate boundaries and processes are necessary, showing that you care and will support someone else can’t be replaced by any other incentives.