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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

How to Deliver “Tough Love” With Respect

Dear Emily,

Earlier this year, I mentored a team member who was taking on additional responsibilities and learning new processes. As she was not a new employee, I expected her onboarding to go quickly and smoothly, and became frustrated when she was not growing in her independence and understanding in the timeframe I anticipated. After a particularly long and exhausting day, I snapped at her. It was immediately clear that I behaved poorly and hurt her feelings. Thankfully, after a day or two, we sat down and talked it out. I relied on the skills I learned during Crucial Conversations and am happy to report that we were able to regain our friendly relationship. Here is my dilemma: after that interaction she made a huge jump in her independence and autonomy. I am not proud of my actions, but I can’t help but notice that this show of frustration may have been the spur she needed to step fully into her role. How can I deliver “tough love” in a way that is respectful of my peers?

Seeking Balance

Dear Seeking Balance,

When our actions generate results in the short-term it can be tempting to keep doing those actions even when they may lead to negative long-term results. So, I commend you for recognizing that your “frustrated snap,” while it may have gotten you quick results, doesn’t align with your values.

You mention you used your Crucial Conversations skills to restore the relationship. I’d like to share some Crucial Accountability skills that may help you avoid damaging the relationship in the first place.

The situation you describe is a classic accountability gap; there was a gap between the performance you expected and the performance you observed and experienced. When faced with such a gap, we often try to identify the cause without having all the facts, and that means we tell ourselves stories. Usually those stories involve blaming or judging the other person. “She must not be trying hard enough! She must not care enough!” Those stories then lead to frustration. That’s where you were when you snapped.

Frustration in the face of a performance gap is common, and for most of us it is the first indication that there is a gap. I personally don’t go through my day thinking, “What are my expectations and what am I observing?” I’m not constantly looking for performance gaps. But almost inevitably I will get frustrated by something during the workday. I’ve learned to see frustration as a signal, a signal that I am facing a gap. When I start to feel frustrated, I stop and ask three questions:

  1. What gap am I experiencing right now? (What is happening that is falling short of my expectations?)
  2. Does the other person know what my expectations are?
  3. Does the other person know there is a gap?

Because it frequently takes me time to identify the gap itself (question 1), it’s not surprising that the answer to questions 2 and 3 is often “no.” If we can’t clearly identify the gap that’s frustrating us, chances are good we haven’t clarified our expectations for the other person, which means it’s impossible for them to see the gap.

Only once we can articulate the gap ourselves can we then have a conversation to address it. Which can be as simple as saying:

    • “Because of your previous experience, I expected you to quickly start working with a high degree of independence.” (Share expectations.)
    • “Yet I’ve noticed over the last couple of months that you’re checking in and asking for permission and guidance on most of your projects.” (Share observations.)
    • “There appears to be a disconnect. What are your thoughts?” (Extend invitation to dialogue.)

Hopefully, that is a better start than a “snap.”

But, wait. Let’s not forget. Something about the “snap” worked. Your team member started to step up in new ways. Why?

When we snap in frustration, we’re acting out a problem, rather than talking it out. And while a frustrated “snap” isn’t the best way to communicate about a problem, it can be an effective way to communicate the severity, significance, or intensity of the problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that your team member realized you were SERIOUS about this issue!

But it also seems clear, based on the rapid change your colleague made post-snap, that she either wasn’t aware of the issue or wasn’t aware of how important it was. Your snap communicated both of those things and your highly capable team member now had clear expectations AND the motivation to change.

Describing the gap (as we did above) communicates the expectations. But you still need to communicate the importance of closing the gap. How do I communicate the intensity of my feelings and the seriousness of the issue, without snapping?

Once again, before you can communicate with someone else, you need to first understand yourself. Simply saying, “This is important because it’s really frustrating me” is the equivalent of a verbal snap. You need to dig beyond your frustration.

  • Why is this gap an issue?
  • What are the downstream problems it might cause?
  • What would be different if the gap were closed?
  • How is this gap impacting you and others?

Once you’ve clarified for yourself why the gap is important, you’ll be better able to share that with the other person.

With that, I have one last thought on gaps, and it comes from your question about delivering “tough love.” In my experience, when most of us talk about “tough love,” we focus on the “tough” part and not the “love” part. Too often we come to these difficult conversations with the assumption that our job is to describe the gap and that the other person’s job is to close or resolve it. But the “love” in tough love is apparent only when we help the other person close the gap, not just point it out.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

5 thoughts on “How to Deliver “Tough Love” With Respect”

  1. John Shoucair

    I really enjoyed this article and got a lot out of it. The author did well to go back and forth between the two approaches, and always gave clear examples of the better long term approach. I loved the last paragraph about the true meaning of tough LOVE.

  2. Mike Mohr

    Ditto, that last paragraph was priceless! Well done Emily!

  3. Laura Berry

    I liked the article, but I don’t agree with the first sentence of the proposed dialog: “Because of your previous experience, I expected you to quickly start working with a high degree of independence.” (Share expectations.)

    I imagined myself on the receiving end of that. Using the past tense “I expected you to…” already communicates failure. The person did not meet your expectations. And if that’s the first time they’ve been communicated, that’s pretty unfair.

    This could be changed to be something more like, “Because of your previous experience, I believe you are capable of a high degree of independence.” That still communicates what you think the person can do, without the failure part.

    The next two sentences still make sense:
    “Yet I’ve noticed over the last couple of months that you’re checking in and asking for permission and guidance on most of your projects.” (Share observations.)
    “There appears to be a disconnect. What are your thoughts?” (Extend invitation to dialogue.)

  4. Renee Hamilton

    This made me think of the first time I took on a very technical responsibilty with my current employer. My boss told me he would train me one time and, after that, he expected me to do it on my own. Knowing the expectations up front, I was careful to document the process and where to find the answers on my own.

  5. Maggie

    I love the definition of tough love. The love is the helping part, not just pointing out the gap/challenge/error. Helping is not doing it for them, so then do we ask , “what do you need to get the task done?” Something like that?

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