What a leader should do when it’s awkward…


If I say “awkward,” what’s the first thing you think of?  A first date?  A painful social interaction?  What about a job interview or a work conversation?

You figured once you “arrived” into management, your days of awkward conversations were coming to an end, right?  Welp, if you haven’t figured out already this is not the case, you will soon…

You know what?  I hope you embrace it!  Yes, that’s right! Embrace awkwardness in leadership.  It is a challenge, for sure – but it will allow you to build your own leadership capability, and demonstrate true firmness as a leader (a very important attribute).

Why?  Because leadership is not comfortable.  

You will need to acknowledge awkward conversations, prepare for them, and tackle them head on.  One of the most damaging thing to credibility and trust, as you manage your team, is to always take the easy way out.  To always say or do what makes things comfortable.  It’s the wrong way to go.  “Management awkwardness” is potentially a very important way for you to gain ground as a leader.

Let’s play out “management awkwardness” in a few different scenarios:

Scenario 1:  giving employee important coaching/feedback on some points of improvement.  He immediately starts arguing – making excuses, blaming, or (worst of all) pointing our your flaws and shortcomings as a leader.  What do you do?

Natural response: you ‘hedge your bet,’ either softening the feedback message, adding in some positive elements, or even retreating altogether.

Correct response:  wait.  Endure the awkward silence, but hold fast to your previous comments (which, I’m going to assume, were substantive, fair and objective).  Don’t back off.  Instead, listen to understand what makes them feel this way, then request to continue the discussion at a later date.  Don’t ‘keep trying’ to get your point across; they aren’t listening anyway by that point.

Scenario 2:  all-star employee, high performer asks to meet with you to discuss career development.  He/she expresses concern at not knowing what his/her direction and future will be with the company.  What do you do?

Natural response:  you promise (or imply) lots of wonderful things, such as a blooming career path, more money, and all their dreams will be fulfilled!

Correct response:  wait.  Listen.  Ask questions to understand exactly what they are after.  What is important to them, and why?  There are a LOT of factors that should play into a decision to promote someone or give someone a raise.  Do not get caught up in a  promise made during a discussion where you panic at the thought of losing, or disappointing, a high performer.  One very appropriate response may be:  “Can we meet again in the near future to talk more?  I want to do my homework to make sure I’m prepared with the best answers possible.”

Scenario 3: a handful of employees, including some managers, engage in a good ol‘ fashion gossip session, with many jabs thrown at the company’s strategy, leadership and practices.  They turn to you for your turn.  What do you do?

Natural response:  chime in and enjoy the friendly banter (which seems harmless enough), or at least smile and nod (implying your consent, participation, and agreement).

Correct response:  wait.  Pause for a moment, if you need.  The ideal would be to verbally disagree with the behaviors they are demonstrating, but that is very hard to do.  It is asking a lot (even though I do feel we should ask it of leaders, and if we consider ourselves leaders we should expect that of ourselves).  But do something.

There may be an alternative such as: making up an excuse to leave without indicating any positive/agreeing response or asking the others what they meant by it, or if they really feel that way.  You may choose to make it a little bit awkward to show your opinion about the behaviors you are seeing.  Once the conversation gets a little bit awkward, others will almost certainly take note that their behavior really isn’t acceptable.

Yes, leadership is definitely awkward sometimes.  In fact, I would say it’s awkward many times.  But that is ok.  It is how you grow, how you build trust, and how you achieve your leadership potential.

Please share below – when is a time you have felt “management awkwardness” in your workplace, and either saw a positive or negative response?




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