Courageous Conversations: How to Use Them to Foster a Team Culture of Cohesion and High Performance

Initiating difficult conversations with colleagues or direct reports may feel daunting. By utilising the following simple but powerful tools, you can build a team culture in which open, honest feedback becomes business as usual, towards greater performance and productivity.

Read time: 4 mins

As a registered Relationship Counsellor and Leadership Coach, I have worked in and alongside Human Services teams for over twenty-five years. Each time I am invited to work with a new team, I am reminded of the vital importance of open, honest communication, in the development of trust and team cohesion. They don’t come without courageous conversations.

These are qualities that must be modelled at the head of the table if they are to be taken seriously by the organisation at large. And there’s no better place to start than the Board and Executive Leadership Team.

Situation, Behaviour, Impact (S.B.I.)

Providing feedback – whether in a professional or personal context – can provoke anxiety. Presenting a person with the frank, unvarnished truth of how we feel about something they have said or done is challenging. It may feel like it goes against our strong desire for harmony and the avoidance of conflict.

So, it’s no wonder that we have often been taught to ‘sandwich’ our ‘negative’ feedback between two slices of ‘positive’ feedback. The problem with this is that it strengthens the narrative that receiving feedback is undesirable. A more helpful message is that feedback can be a gift if we use it to learn and grow.

The SBI framework* provides a safe and supportive scaffold, for the provision and receipt of feedback, both ‘appreciative’ and ‘developmental’.

Appreciative Feedback

Sometimes called ‘affirming’ feedback, this is where we share our appreciation of a person’s behaviour (words or actions). When we build habits of regularly providing appreciative feedback, the provision of developmental feedback does not feel like such a daunting leap. I deliberately refrain from using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ when talking about feedback, as all feedback is helpful when it is provided thoughtfully.

Developmental Feedback

Sometimes called ‘constructive’ feedback, this is where we address a behaviour which we assess as unhelpful (within a personal or professional setting). Our intention in providing developmental feedback is to support the other person to reflect upon their behaviour, towards making a positive change.

SSituationIdentify the specific situation or context
BBehaviourDescribe clearly and accurately the behaviour you observed
IImpactExplain the impact you experienced or observed

After providing developmental feedback, it may be helpful to provide space for the other person to share the intentions behind their behaviour, so long as this does not become an exercise in denying or minimising its impacts. This can then lead to a conversation about alternative behaviours.

IIntentionExplore the intentions behind the behaviour in question
ABAlternative BehaviourConsider alternative behaviours
PIPotential ImpactConsider potential impacts of the alternative behaviour

Our secret weapon for building the best culture is open and honest feedback.

*Adapted from the SBI Framework from the Centre for Creative Leadership

Calling Out (and calling in) *

If we are serious about building a team culture that promotes open, honest communication, then it must be a culture which feels psychologically safe to all team members.

According to Harvard Business School’s Dr. Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is experienced when team members feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. 

The maintenance of psychological safety sometimes requires responding to behaviours, in the moment, which threaten this safety. ‘Calling out’ problem behaviour is a particular kind of courageous conversation, characterised by immediacy and sometimes a certain subjectivity.

The aim of calling out behaviour is to maintain psychological safety in the workplace. An example might be responding to a racist, misogynistic or queerphobic word or comment. 

If, when, and how we choose to respond to such behaviour will send messages to others in the space about the culture of the organisation and their own level of safety in the workplace. 

We might choose to ‘call-out’ the behaviour, or we might choose to ‘call-in’ the behaviour. Depending on our own levels of psychological safety, we may choose to respond from our heart (drawing on our own feelings and lived experience) or from our head (drawing on organisational values, HR principles, legislation, or other evidence). 

Calling Out

(characterised by the ‘C’ word, Correction)

When we want to communicate that the behaviour or language is unacceptable and not permitted – usually because we have assessed that it is likely to impact psychological safety in the workplace. 


Calling In

(characterised by the ‘C’ word, Curiosity)

When we want to take time to explore the meanings attached to the behaviours and the intentions behind it. The aim is to deepen mutual understanding and explore alternatives

Note: We may wish to call out the behaviour whilst calling in the person (I call this ‘naming, but not shaming’)

The academic research is overwhelming: when people believe they can speak up at work, the learning, innovation, and performance of their organizations is greater. Teams and organizations in which people believe that their voices are welcome outperform their counterparts.

*Adapted from Oregon Centre for Educational Equity – What Did You Just Say?

Make the Commitment to Courageous Conversations

At A Single Step, I walk alongside Human Services teams, guiding you through the strengthening of relationships, and the building of inclusive workplaces, towards greater collective purpose and commitment across your organisation.

Visit the Teams page of my website to learn more about our services, or simply call me today, for an informal chat about how I can support your organisation.

Call me today

I'm passionate about supporting individuals, couples, families and teams to transform conflict into healthy, happy, and more productive relationships.
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About the author: Chris Pye
Chris lives in Brisbane with his husband, two children and a Greyhound called Senja. His extra-curricular interests and activities include trail-running, music-making and social-justice activism.

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