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Teaching Federal Managers to Tackle Tough Conversations

02/08/2012 03:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

If you're worried about rocking the boat at work, fear not. You might be doing yourself more harm than good by keeping quiet.

Federal managers have to deal with many obstacles on a daily basis, but none is quite as unpleasant as conducting an uncomfortable conversation with a boss.

Gordon Lee Salmon, a principal at Learning for Living LLC, has seen this time and again during his coaching sessions with feds, "Wanting to please your boss and not make waves can lead to unintended consequences such as blowups among staff, decreased morale and other forms of dysfunction that lead to inefficiency and disengagement among staff."

These hard conversations, however, might actually prevent problems at work and can lead to more trust overall. The challenge for Federal supervisors is to create an environment where such talks won't lead to retribution or perceived incompetence, which is why Salmon focuses on it so heavily during coaching sessions.

"The coaching issue, as I see it, is to help managers gain skill in being able to hold powerful conversations, and by doing so, build a trusting relationship with senior managers and direct reports that creates tighter alignment around shared goals and addresses things that get in the way of effective execution," he added.

When Salmon asked the GovLoop community last week for tips on how to effectively engage in uncomfortable conversations, he got a variety of responses.

Tom Melancon, an Alternative Dispute Resolution Program Manager and Technical Writer, suggested that the problem is prominent: "In my work as the Program Manager, I see many instances when a Manager's reluctance to have a difficult conversation results in confusion, misbehavior, morale busting incidents and chaos."

"I've had the best results when I'm already known and have a good reputation. If we don't have a reputation with the person we're talking with, it's helpful [to] realize that the person we're talking with is within their rights to (and probably will) challenge us. My advice is to try to be prepared and relaxed. This is a normal feature of human dynamics -- the issue is what's important," said David Dejewski, a former senior leader at the Department of Defense.

Michelle Rosebloom, director of marketing at 3Leaf Group, agreed, "I think it is important to address these types of serious conversations if they propel positive advancements and are not just a conduit for complaining."

Being honest about one's own strengths and weaknesses in mind is often good advice for any workplace conundrum -- even for managers. Asking for help and sharing the load demonstrate humility and contribute to an office running smoothly.

One program analyst and GovLoop member said, "The difficult conversation is held because the manager is stuck. Admit it. Seek advice. Groom someone on the team. Share your fears. And finally, bond."