Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are Tough Conversations the Kindest?

Patty McCord on how to face tough talks.

Source: istock

Do you find yourself struggling to have tough conversations at work? Do you find yourself putting them off, biting your tongue, and thinking it would just be kinder to suck it up rather than upset someone? What is it that makes these conversations so tough?

“It’s not cruel to tell people the truth respectfully,” explained Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, and the author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility when I interviewed her recently. “You actually owe the adults you hire the truth, and that is what they want most from you.”

It may sometimes seem not the "nicest" thing to be upfront and honest about someone’s behavior or ideas. However, if it means holding on to resentment, talking about others behind their backs or holding back suggestions that could positively turn a project or workplace around then, in the long run, it’s disrespectful to the person and others you work with. Patty suggests that when you really respect and value the person in front of you, then you’ll only say things about them that you say to their face.

As a result, practicing radical honesty has become a core component of the freedom and responsibility culture at Netflix. Patty explains it involves giving your colleagues direct honest feedback face-to-face and in a timely and respectful manner. Rather than undermining a team’s unity, it can help build trust, respect, and understanding between people, which in turn helps solve problems and diffuses tensions. In fact, Netflix has found that when you make giving and receiving feedback a normal part of work, it becomes less stressful and enables you to learn faster.

Practicing radical honesty doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’ll say will be hurtful. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to encourage others to speak up or to understand more about where they are coming from. And if you need to raise something that isn’t working so well with a colleague or manager, if they believe that the conversation you're having with them is constructive so it will result in a better experience for a customer or a better experience for the team, or that you genuinely want them to do better, then chances are they are going to be more open to what you have to say.

“When you work with people who do great work and challenge each other,” Patty said, “You not only help bring out the best in each other, you help to bring out the best in your team.”

How can you develop a culture of candid feedback in your organization?

Patty shares three suggestions from her experience at Netflix and in other workplaces:

  • Practice radical honesty every day – Finding ways to practice radical honesty every day can help make it easier to give and receive feedback. Approach it as a way of really respecting and valuing the person you’re interacting with, and developing strategies to work together more efficiently. When the person you’re providing honest feedback to knows that you’re giving it with genuine love and a wish for them or the organization to do better, they can be more open to hearing what you say. Once you’re in the rhythm of practicing this regularly, feelings don’t get hurt, and you learn to thank others for their helpfulness.
  • Reconsider annual performance reviews – Instead, provide your people with frequent feedback about how well they’re doing, and what they can do to improve their own performance, and their team’s achievements. Consider it the same way that sports coaches work – often during a season they will sit down with each of their players, evaluate the individuals and team stats, identify the specific activities to change the player’s performance and increase the team’s chances of winning the next few games. Use your reviews to also gain feedback on your performance as a leader.
  • Share opposing views - encourage your people to have strong, fact-based opinions that they share and debate rigorously with others. Bring people with a passion for their ideas together with others who are equally as passionate but have a different perspective. This can help you explore and learn so much more about the ideas. And encouraging someone to argue both sides of a situation where you’re not sure how to proceed can give you some vital insights.

What can you do to turn tough conversations into kind conversations at work?

More from Michelle McQuaid Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today