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Every person makes mistakes at some time in the workplace. Everyone needs someone to come alongside them to help them improve.  If you’re a leader, it is your responsibility and your privilege to be the person who helps them get better. That often begins with a candid conversation. But before you have it, it helps to ask yourself what the nature of the problem might be.

My friend Sam Chand says that when he is having difficulty with a person he asks himself one simple question, “Is this person a can’t or a won’t? Can’t is about abilities. We can help these kinds of people in most cases—not in all cases, but in most. But won’t is about attitude. If the issue is attitude, the time to let that person know there is a problem is now, because here is the deal: we hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are.”

I believe that people can improve their attitudes and their abilities.  And because I do, I talk to them about where they’re coming up short.  If you’re a leader and you want to help people, you need to be willing to have those tough conversations. So how does a leader handle being relational while still trying to move people forward? By balancing care and candor.

Care without candor creates dysfunctional relationships.

Candor without care creates distant relationships.

But care balanced with candor creates developing relationships.

Here is how care and candor work together in leadership:

Caring Values The Person While Candor Values The Person’s Potential

To lead successfully, it is important for you to value people. That is foundational to solid relationships. Caring for others demonstrates that you value them. However, if you want to help them get better, you have to be honest about where they need to improve.  That shows that you value the person’s potential, and requires candor.

If you’re candid with someone but with their benefit in mind, it doesn’t have to be harmful. It can be similar to the work of a surgeon.  It may hurt, but it shouldn’t harm.  As a leader, you must be willing and able to do that. If not, you won’t be able to help your people grow and change.

Caring Establishes The Relationship While Candor Expands The Relationship

The things that usually help to establish a relationship are common ground and care. But those things usually aren’t enough to make a relationship grow. To expand a relationship, candor and open communication are required.

Most leaders I talk to have a difficult conversation that they know they need to have but are avoiding. Usually they are reluctant for one of two reasons: either they don’t like confrontation, or they fear that they will hurt the person they need to talk to. But if a leader can balance care and candor, and the follower responds with grace and willingness to grow, it will actually deepen and strengthen the relationship.

Caring Defines The Relationship While Candor Directs The Relationship

Solid relationships are defined by how people care about one another.  But just because people care about one another doesn’t mean that they are going anywhere together.  Getting the team moving together to accomplish a goal is the responsibility of the leader, and that often requires candor. My friend, Colin Sewell, owner of several auto dealerships, said to me, “Leaders have to make the best decisions for the largest group of people. Therefore, leaders give up the right to cater to an individual if it hurts the team or the organization.” If you want to lead people well, you need to be willing to direct them candidly.

Caring Should Never Suppress Candor While Candor Should Never Displace Caring

The bottom line, which has already become very clear, is that good leaders must embrace both care and candor. You can’t ignore either. So to help you strive to keep the balance between the two, I’ve created a caring candor checklist for working with people. Before having a candid conversation, make sure that you can answer yes to the following questions:

  • Have I invested in the relationship enough to be candid with them?
  • Do I truly value them as people?
  • Am I sure this is their issue and not mine?
  • Am I sure I’m not speaking up because I feel threatened?
  • Is the issue more important than the relationship?
  • Does this conversation clearly serve their interests and not just mine?
  • Am I willing to invest time and energy to help them change?
  • Am I willing to show them how to do something, not just say what’s wrong?
  • Am I willing and able to set clear, specific expectations?

If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then your motives are probably right and you have a good chance of being able to communicate effectively.

As a young leader, I found it very difficult to have candid conversations with people. I often postponed those difficult talks, hoping that an issue would go away. Seldom did that happen. Maybe you relate to that.  If so, you’ll be glad to hear that you’re normal. However, you need to know that candid conversations are a leader’s responsibility and must be done—but in the right way with the right attitude. When an employee is hired to get a certain job done and doesn’t, that hurts the team and the organization. And it’s then time for the leader to take action. That can be very hard; but in the long term, it’s best not only for the organization, but also for the person who needs to hear what’s not going right. If your goal is to help the individual, improve the team, and fulfill the vision of the organization, then this is the path you should follow as a leader.

Adapted from my upcoming book, The Five Levels of Leadership (October 2011)

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