Many times, I struggle between being candid and possibly hurting someone’s feelings or driving them to anger, or being silent and not sharing critical information or feedback at all. Certainly, it’s much easier to be direct and forthcoming when I am asked to be or paid to be as a consultant.

Why is this important for retail management? Why is it important for relationships? Research is clear that those who step up and deal skillfully with difficult or critical issues, rather than shying away, are significantly more successful than those who don’t. The capacity to talk about sensitive, high-stakes issues is a remarkable predictor of success.

As a consultant, I am often hired as the bad guy. The owner hires me to study his business, offer recommendations and implement a plan for improvement. On several occasions, the manager or owner knew exactly what he wanted, even before he inked my contract, but he didn’t want to be the one who initiated the change. He was afraid to step up and deal with the issue directly. He would rather shy away and sweep the issue under the rug or pass the responsibility on to someone else; in this case, me.

Managers and owners of great companies do not shy away or walk away from problems simply because they are difficult or sensitive. They step up, candidly discuss the issues with their stakeholders, listen for input, and look creatively for resolutions. Research shows that great companies do not sugarcoat the issues and address them immediately as they arise. They don’t wait for the “right moment” or a future annual review.

Psychologists can predict, in just a few minutes and with extreme accuracy (96%), whether or not a couple will stay married by observing how they discuss and handle delicate issues and differences. Do they step-up or shy away? Does one go silent as the other gets aggressive? But later, in an emotional moment, does the silent one bombard the other with a buried issue he or she thought was solved? How can they be candid and respectful at the same time? It starts with stepping up.

I once worked with a client who struggled with his installation contractors. Their independence (which is rightfully theirs) caused him stress and affected the profitability of his business. He couldn’t get them to do what he wanted. Because they were good mechanics he was afraid to confront them for fear of their leaving and finding work at another store.

“You know, good and well-trained mechanics are hard to find,” he said.

I can’t count the number of times I have heard, “This would be a great industry in which to work, if it weren’t for the installers.”  So what did he do about his “installation problem?” He tried to address his issues, but soft-pedaled them. His sugarcoating undermined his effort. Nothing changed. Eventually he gave up and did nothing.

The reality was, he didn’t have an “installer problem.” He had a failure to “step-up” problem or, as perfectly phrased in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

The fact is that the failure to “step up” was a leadership failure. The quality of another’s leadership will be the quality of his/her communication.

Recently, at a national convention, I met with a mother-and-son team who were managing a retail store. They had been thrown into managing the business when their husband/father passed away unexpectedly, and they were struggling with the behavior of some long-time employees. They were not content to simply let the issue stand or further erode their leadership position in the company; rather, they were determined to deal with the situation head-on.

As a retail storeowner or manager, whether you like it or not, you’re responsible for four critical areas of business:  profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction/retention. These are the measures of your leadership. If these measures are not improved because of your influence, then youare an unjustifiable expense to the company and your position should be eliminated. Most failures are failures to step up and address sensitive issues.

In the worst companies, the leaders will shy away or go silent; if they do step up, the issue becomes emotionally charged and the leader becomes demanding and controlling. In times of strong emotion, because of our natural fight-or-flight response, the higher functioning parts of the brain – reasoning and creativity – become blood-starved. The blood flows to our muscles and adrenals. The adrenalin prepares us to fight or flee.

How do you step up and discuss sensitive issues without either side becoming drunk with adrenalin? I have learned that I share the responsibility of how people respond to me because I teach them how to do it. To see ourselves, we need only to look at others’ reactions to us.

Whether addressing a sensitive issue with my spouse, one of my children or one of my employees, if their response is defensive or emotional, then I have failed in my communication because they are now in the fight or flee mode. If I blame them, or say I have an installer problem or a kid problem, I hand them control, which makes me feel helpless and I do nothing.

Every time you think that the problem is in others, that very thought is the problem. It’s the blaming self-betrayers do as they shift responsibility for what’s going wrong to someone else.

When stepping up, we must ask ourselves “How can I be loyal and respectful, and candid at the same time. How can I master this moment? How do the best do it?”

Whereas some push their arguments so hard that others resent their tactics, great communicators state the facts calmly and accurately. Where others ignore those who are silently fuming, great communicators invite them to speak, listen to what they say and encourage openness. Where others trade relationships for results, a great communicator achieves both. When great communicators notice things getting tense, they adapt quickly to how others are responding by trying a new strategy.

When great leaders sense a critical moment, they ask, “Is the effort worth my time?” and if it is, they step up.