You’ve got one, I’m almost sure of it.
In the past year, I’ve been blessed to take a sabbatical from the corporate world and work, instead, as an executive coach for twelve Executive Directors of nonprofit organizations. These coaching engagements have fueled and fanned my passion for leadership, organizations and improvement. They have also given me a full year of experience in the world of nonprofit leadership, seeing the unique challenges that this cohort of CEOs face as they strive to grow their organizations and make the world a better place.
The first challenge (I’ll take up some of the others in subsequent blog posts), is the conversation. Not just any conversation, mind you, but a conversation that has needed to happen for a long time and that the leader is avoiding. A Crucial Conversation, as Joseph Grenny and his co-authors call it in their book of nearly the same name. A crucial conversation is any conversation where the stakes are high, the opinions differ and emotions are involved. Over the course of my sabbatical, the most significant common denominator among the organizations that I worked with was a crucial conversation that needed to take place, but that was being avoided.
You’ve got one too. My prediction is that you can think of an important, high-stakes conversation that needs to occur, but that you’ve been avoiding. The reasons for avoiding your needed conversation might be similar to the reasons at work in the organizations I’ve coached. Here are three:
“I really want to help the other person, and having that conversation would hurt their feelings.” Each of the organizations that I coached are led by extremely compassionate people. As a rule, they got into nonprofit leadership out of a deep desire to help those in need. They are trained as counselors or educators or pastors. They live their lives in service to communities and individuals who are struggling with huge challenges. This desire to help others who are in need can result in a tendency to avoid conversations that might create pain for others.
“They’ve already sacrificed so much to volunteer, serve on the board, or work at a nonprofit, that I can’t hold them accountable for their behavior or performance,” or, on the other side, “I’ve already sacrificed so much, how dare you hold me accountable for my behavior or performance!” There are huge sacrifices that any staff member or volunteer of a nonprofit makes. The salaries are lower, the benefits are fewer, and the work is often much more emotionally taxing. When the needed crucial conversation is between a nonprofit leader and someone who has sacrificed for the organization, it can be tempting to avoid having it, for fear of offending the other person and seeming ungrateful. For their part, nonprofit employees are sometimes susceptible to the trap of an entitlement mindset, setting some of them up to over-react to any attempt by the leader to address crucial performance issues.
To summarize the first two reasons that crucial conversations are avoided: nonprofit leaders often have a temperament that wants to encourage and support those in need, not challenge them; and those who work at nonprofits may feel that they’ve already paid their dues and that it is unreasonable to hold them accountable to high standards of performance or behavior.
The third that Patrick Lencioni calls Artificial Harmony. This is an element of organizational culture that behaves as if any conflict is a sign that something is seriously wrong. In fact, conflict is an essential part of any successful team effort. Avoiding conflict comes at a cost to the people and the organization. That costs include poorer decisions, growing bitterness, and ineffective programs.
So you’ve got one, what do you do about it?
The book I’ve recommended most over the past ten years, and certainly in the past months as a coach to nonprofit leaders, is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. This book is a veritable gold mine of techniques and approaches for initiating and surviving that conversation that you’ve been avoiding. My encouragement to dozens of leaders in the past few years: use the book to prepare for that conversation, and then go have it. A summary of their approach can be found here.
Done well, crucial conversations can be the necessary stepping-stones to progress in the nonprofit organization. Nonprofit leaders will dramatically increase the impact they have in their organizations as they improve their skills in holding crucial conversations and their courage to tackle them.
I’m rooting for you.