Let’s face it. the majority of people in business are nice, yet professional. Sometimes as managers though, niceness overtakes the need to manage effectively. Read any business magazine and you’ll get advice such as “Never criticize an employee directly.” Other books or speakers encourage you to “sandwich” the criticism between two positives. For example, if an employee is continuously late, a supervisor is instructed to say, “James, you’re a valued employee here at Acme Widget Comapany. However you’ve been coming to work late quite a few times. Hey! Good job on last week’s budget report!” James only remembers what he wants…that he’s a valued employee and he does great budget reports. While we always try to treat people with respect, there comes a time when direct statements are needed. Forget the subtle hints and e-mail reminders. Disregard the sandwich routine and simply state the facts.
At a speaking/leadership conference for supervisors, the class required everyone to frequently give short presentations or mini-speeches to the group. Ed, the director of a 50 staff department, had great content in his speeches, yet cleared his throat with a slight “Ahm” after every 3-4 sentences. While it was noticeable in his speeches, no one mentioned it, thinking he might have some allergy or throat condition. At the end of the second day, small groups formed and critiqued each other’s speeches. Someone in Ed’s group tried tactfully to mention Ed might want to watch his throat clearing habit. It obviously had little affect, since the “Ahm’s” continued, even in ordinary conversation. Then it happened. During the closing hour of the conference, Ed gave a five minute speech. He had a great opening, maintained eye contact, and even used a few props. Of course by now the rest of the class silently counted his throat clearing sounds while he presented. Ed barely finished his last sentence when the instructor asked to see him at the back of the room. She asked, “Ed, do you have some sort of throat problem?” “No” answered Ed. “Then you need to concentrate to stop clearing your throat. It’s an annoying habit and it interferes with people listening to you. I’m sure during staff meetings people tune you out because you say ‘Ahm’ every 15 seconds,” said the instructor. Ed later told the group his wife frequently mentioned the habit, but he simply disregarded her suggestion. The instructor went on to suggest his wife tap his arm or cough herself whenever Ed went into his throat clearing routine. He actually thanked the instructor and wondered out loud why no one else had ever directly mentioned the annoying habit. Sometimes you just have to be blunt.
Without being rude or demeaning, here are four ways to communicate when a direct approach is needed.
1. Have other communication attempts like memos or e-mail reminders failed? If so, sometimes a direct, yet non-confrontational approach is the only way to make your point. Begin the conversation with, “Jessica, I’ve tried to communicate with you about this before, and it looks like I need to be more direct.” Then state exactly what you want to say in a calm voice.
2. Be specific. Instead of saying, “Susan, you often leave work early,” try, “Susan. I’ve recorded on this calendar the number of times you’ve left work early. According to this record, that’s been 6 days since February 1st.” Being factual keeps the conversation on a non-confrontational level. Stick with the facts and avoid generalizations or veiled name calling.
3. Don’t take the person’s reaction personally. Most likely they’ll be argumentative and upset. Realize that’s their way of dealing with what you just said. If the person is very upset, listen to their opinions, then offer to continue the discussion in an hour after they’ve calmed down.
4. Ask for their input in the situation. Ask, “What can be done to help you make sure the sports complex is always open on time for the participants?” “Let’s meet tomorrow in my office at 4:00pm. Please bring some ideas on how to improve the situation of getting your weekly attendance reports in on time.” When employees feel they are part of the solution, they are more likely to improve the situation.
I recently had the unusual experience of appearing on the FOX reality show, Trading Spouses. For one week, I lived with a family and their mom stayed with my husband and daughter. The dad where I stayed was very set in his ways. He insisted his wife do all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of the three kids and run a business from home. He barked orders and yelled at his kids. His wife told me she had tried tactfully to get him more involved with the kids and to be more respectful to her. Her gentle words had little impact on his uncouth behavior. I had one week to get this guy in shape! When I saw that tact and “sandwiching” statements weren’t getting through, I tried a more direct approach.
While out at a restaurant, I said, “Tell me how you think your son feels when you say he’s a sissy and plays golf like a girl. Did you see the look on your daughter’s face when you refused to go bowling with her? You need to realize you are not king in this house and other people have feelings also. Just because you’re in a bad mood doesn’t mean you have the right to take it out on other family members.” I could tell no one had talked to him like this before. Everyone walked on eggshells, living in fear he would yell at them. I calmly and assertively told him how I observed his negative influence on his family. The next day, he admitted he needed to change, so that his children wouldn’t hate him. Am I a miracle worker? No. But there comes a time when being direct is more effective then gentle hints.
For those of us in a supervisory role, it’s often difficult to be direct with employees. How can we expect to be firm and direct when dealing with employees who are continuously late or perform mediocre work? Although it is difficult, at times a direct approach is needed to create a high quality, professional department.
Silvana Clark is a business speaker who uses humor, contests, props and PANIC buttons to help businesses cope with change and reduce stress. If you want your own computer PANIC button, check out www.panicbuttons.com Or, if you want a speaker for your conference or training event, check out http://www.silvanaclark.com