A compassionate approach to tough conversations


Do you baulk at tough conversations? If so, you are not alone. In this case study we share one of the toughest conversations you ever have to tackle - performance management. And we offer a compassionate approach. 

We hope it supports your courage and effectiveness.

Leaders find themselves having to think about performance management for all kinds of reasons. What makes it hard is different in every case. Some of the situations our clients have come to us with include:

  • Someone has fairly recently been allowed to pass their probationary period, despite reservations about their fit or ability to deliver.
  • A leader isn't working out, but they have deep relationships or ties to, or profile with funders, board members, or other key stakeholders
  • The person in question has been with the organisation for a really long time and it feels like they’re part of the fabric of the organisation. They might even be the founder.
  • The person is experiencing mental health, stress leave, or family complications.
  • The person has taken over from other people who have also not succeeded in that role or department. They're worried about another failure, or the accumulated trauma in the organisation around turnover and key staff changes.

Faced with these highly sensitive situations (and usually there's more than one of the above factors at play at the same time), our clients generally feel like they are facing an impossible dilemma: to ignore the situation and do their best to have the organisation and other staff compensate for the shortfalls, or to become hard-hearted in some way and take care of the organisation’s needs at the expense of the individual. Could there be a third way?

The journey

As we reflect on the many such journeys that we have gone on with leaders and organisations to chart a path through these sensitive waters, we often hear how helpful it is to have an independent, confidential and informed partner to decompress and talk through the issues at play and to be reassured that there is a way to take care of everyone.

“I couldn’t have done the last few months without you. You brought extreme warmth and compassion with firmness, clarity and reassurance. Your message ‘I’m right beside you’ made a huge difference.”

With a deep sigh of relief that they are no longer alone with this awful dilemma, we begin to explore and understand the situaiton more deeply.  This is a creative and responsive process between the leader and us.

Some of the areas we might explore include:

  1. To what extent has this person been set up for success in their role? Do they have all the information, resources and timely feedback they require in order to succeed?
  2. How has their role or the needs of the organisation changed over time? Is the role and context they came in to the same or markedly different? Is something different required of them now to when they were brought in?
  3. How happy is the person themselves in the role? Does this align with their real areas of genius or have things drifted or changed in ways that stretch them in ways that don’t really allow them to shine in what they’re great at? Is this situation impacting their wellbeing and self -confidence?
  4. What role is the dynamic between the manager and the individual in question playing? To what extent might it be differences in thinking / working or communication styles? Or is each individual aligned and representing different parts of your ecosystem or history? What value might there be in understanding that diversity in order to bring in insight?

This thought-provoking process makes is possible to deliver value to everyone, and it enables a meaningful and insightful diagnostic to emerge. This is what our systemic lens can bring to a complex situation.

“You have an ability to unravel a knot and figure out what matters and what levers to pull – you helped us move from a situation in which it felt like so many things weren’t working to turning all that around.”


Leaders who have gone through this process with us, chart a path that makes sense for their unique context. It is a dynamic experience that moves them from being in a stuck dilemma where there is an either/or impossible choice to one where they can take care of both the person and the organisation in a way that feels kind, wise and skilful.

Most of these projects results in one or more of these positive outcomes.

  1. Organisational improvements: This can include refining recruitment practices, strengthening people management skills, more effectively engaging an HR function, working through needed structural changes, or revisiting or clarifying strategy.
  2. Manager or Team dynamics: A richer understanding of their own leadership style, the needs of their direct reports, or the dynamics playing out in their team.
  3. Individual opportunities: through executive coaching, leadership profiling or career transition coaching, the individual gains support, personal insight, new skills, or a whole new perspective on what they want to be doing or the kind environment in which they thrive. They almost always report being deeply grateful for the journey, and proud of their growth and change.

"Next week I’ll be starting a role that is about as close to my dream job as I could get!! Thank you for all your support. It kept me focused on what I really wanted. I feel very grateful for the way it's all turned out!"

For social purpose organisations and leaders, being faced with what feels like an ethical dilemma – to take care of an individual or to take care of the organisation, is deeply draining and distracting.

By partnering with the system, we help leaders to see what is needed to have both the person and the system thrive, skills which they will use over and again, as they steer their organisations through the growth, change and challenge.

If you resonate with this story and would like to talk to us, please reach out at or call 0400 405 323. We’d love to connect.


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