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Cultivating Constructive Conversations without Shame

How do you hold someone accountable without them feeling reprimanded?

This is a very common question I hear from someone in leadership who wants to check themselves. They want to shape high-performers, and hold their people to high standards. And they want to deliver confrontation constructively.

When an employee is being held accountable in a confrontational conversation, and by the end of it they feel anything akin to scolded, punished, berated, or lectured…Well that my friends turns into a big, grey, elephant-shaped cloud named “Shame.” And often times he brings along his twin, “Fear.”

We as humans fear feeling ashamed. We will avoid it at almost any cost.

From your employees, this will look like increased avoidance for situations where they might experience failure or make mistakes. They might also begin to skew or falsify information in their favor, so you don’t get a whole and accurate picture of a situation. As a result, you as a leader are not able to catch issues before they are real problems. You are not able to provide the employee(s) with the support they need to be successful, and their pile of issues gets bigger and bigger. This turns into surprises (not the good kind) and fires for you (and potentially other members on the team).

Have you ever had one of those experiences where your eyes were finally opened to a situation and sh*t was hitting the fan, and you asked your team member, “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?!”

They may have answered with something like, “I wasn’t sure what to do,” or “I don’t know, I’m sorry.” And whether or not they could recognize it, they were probably feeling something in the realm of shame or fear. Rather than tell you what was happening they tried to resolve it alone or hoped it would go away, despite a small voice in their head telling them otherwise.

And maybe it’s because either you as their current leadership, or one of their leaders in the past made them feel scolded, punished, berated, or lectured…

Everyone makes mistakes. Some are small and some are massive. And the accountability conversation you have with a team member should hold the same amount of weight as the problem. But if you intend to keep this employee onboard given the situation, then here is an approach to making the conversation constructive, even if it is a doozie.

  1. Stay calm and meet in private. Respond to the situation rather than react with emotion. If this was not a personal attack, then do not make it into one. And do not make this a social event. You will add embarrassment on top of it all.
  2. Be specific and do not dance around the subject. Outline your intention for the conversation as well as how you would like the conclusion to look. Be clear with the message you mean to portray.
  3. Open your perspective and be curious. There is a difference between really listening to someone, and waiting your turn to speak. Avoid building up a whole scene in your head with a dialogue of exactly how you will respond to what you think they will say. Be genuinely curious to what gaps of information they can fill for you.
  4. Then put the matter in perspective for them. Now you have all the info – both sides of the coin. So help them to see your perspective on why this is important, how it affects the team, and prolonged consequences if there are any. Some of their long-term development happens here.
  5. Set future expectations. This is where real clarity in their accountability comes through. Here is where you set expectations not only related to their role and responsibilities, but also for how you expect them to handle this type of situation in the future (and how you intend to support them in carrying that out).

One critical thing is to be respectful and reasonable, and treat all employees the same. Another is that once the conversation has ended (unless their is a repeat offense) let the matter lie.

By applying the above approach, you should be able to avoid damaging conversations, build trust, and see your more difficult confrontations be productive.

This concept shows up in many cultures – that shame is an ultimate offense, and something to be critically avoided. I’m curious, how has shame shown up for you in the workplace before?


If you want more strategies on this topic, I cover the common dysfunctions of a growing organization and how leaders can shape high-performing teams accessed here.

Or you can schedule an intro call here (free of selling, full of in-depth advice).


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Follow the link to the mini Leadership Maximizer Audit and I’ll help you uncover your next steps in getting rid of the elephants in your boardroom.


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