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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Confronting an Employee? 3 Communication Mistakes Managers Make

As another year closes and a new one begins, annual performance reviews are either right around the corner or fresh in the rearview mirror. And no doubt there have been one or two conversations that had you pacing the halls. What do you say to an employee who over-indulged at the holiday party? What about the star player who delivers results and a trail of body odor you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy? And then there’s Nancy, the one who needs to hear some feedback but is always so wound up you fear she’ll unleash a tirade of emotions and leave you under your desk, sucking your thumb, and humming the theme song from Little Orphan Annie.

Yes, when it comes to confrontation, it can be a frightening world out there for leaders. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be so tough—and if we stop making some highly unfortunate communication mistakes, it can get a whole lot easier. Here are three of the most common errors managers commit, and tips on what you can do instead—so neither you nor your erring employee has to dread the conversation.

1. Machine Gun Nelly

This beauty happens as a result of one or two things: Either you’re so pissed you can’t maintain your composure, or you’ve avoided confrontation so long, you have a pile of dry ammunition that just met its match. As a result, you spew your laundry list of complaints with nary a breath in between, and meanwhile, your hapless victim is nervously glancing around trying to spot the nearest exit.

Here’s the thing: No matter how valid your complaints, you look a little crazy when you lose control of your emotions. What’s more, your unfortunate employee is so overwhelmed by the rapid-fire feedback that there is no conceivable way she can parse through it all, let alone effectively shift any unwanted behaviors.

The Fix: Stay Current and Keep it Short

I loathe annual reviews because they only happen once a year. More than a few managers use this as an excuse to keep an ongoing tab of feedback and conveniently wait until that special day to unload it.

But this doesn’t help solve any problems, and it certainly doesn’t help anyone succeed. Make things easier on your employees and yourself by addressing issues as soon as they arise in a short and sweet manner, free of the emotional load. Calmly and clearly state the issue at hand, the impact, and give no more than three examples of when it occurred. For example: “Ray, I want to talk with you about your behavior at the holiday party and the effect it’s having on the reputation of yourself and this team. I noticed you were slurring your words, at one point you stood on a table and danced, and at another spilled your drink on Cathy.”

Notice how I didn’t say “your unprofessional, ridiculous, sloppy behavior.” The more objective you can make it, the less likely someone is to become defensive. (If you have more than three examples or more than one issue to resolve, you’ve waited too long to have this conversation.)

2. Too Many Pillows

The opposite of Machine Gun Nelly is to be so phobic of confrontation that you work overly hard to minimize any negative impact. It might go something like this:

“Jim, I wanted to talk to you about this whole attendance policy thing—I actually don’t have that much of a problem with it but you know how HR is—and by the way, did you hear about Ray at the holiday party? Insane, right? Anyway—you might want to try a little harder to get in around 9. Is that OK?”

The result is often counter to what you hoped to communicate: The employee doesn’t even know he has a problem to fix. In an extreme case, I once heard of an employee who thought he had been given a promotion when in reality he was being issued a warning.

The Fix: Grow a Pair and Be Direct

If you’ve equated being a manager with being someone’s friend, you’re in the wrong business. While it is possible to accomplish both, your primary responsibility is to the company—after all, without its success, neither one of you have a job.

Be direct with your employees so they have clear action steps for what to do next. When confronting, tell them what’s at stake and that you wish to resolve this—working with them to ensure a plan is in place before they leave your office. For example, going back to Ray, I could continue by saying, “There is a lot at stake for both of us. For you, your ability to move up the ranks and for me, the morale of this team along with how the organization views us. I want to resolve this issue with you and I’d like to hear your viewpoint along with ideas on how to move forward.”

When the conversation has concluded, restate the proposed resolution to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

3. The Crap-Filled Lolly

This wonderful term comes courtesy of our friends down under and describes the “sandwich” approach to confrontation. You begin with a compliment (“Suzy, you are killing it in sales!”), slip in the doozy (“But if you miss one more meeting, you’ll be looking at a dock in commissions”), and then end on an up note (“I really do like your sales approach—you have a great thing goin’!”). Confusing? You bet. And the next time you pay anyone a compliment, they will wince, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The Fix: Keep Positive and Negative Feedback Separate

Unless you’re my 4-year old son, you don’t inflate a balloon just to immediately pop it afterward. The same should hold true with matters of self worth. When you notice someone doing great work, tell him right away and stop there. Give your employees an opportunity to bask in success and remove the “gotchas.” This way, when you have something positive to say, they can really hear it. And when the time comes to address an issue, you better believe their ears will perk up.

That said, don’t take this too far—if it is annual review time, and you have positive and negative feedback to give, don’t skimp on one or the other. You can also achieve this separation just by saying it: “You’ve been doing a great job—I first want to tell you what I’ve been most impressed with this year,” discuss, and then, “There are also a couple of areas for improvement that I would like to talk about.”

By eliminating some common errors, and with a little practice, tough conversations don’t have to be dreadful. They can, in fact, become opportunities to improve everyone’s performance. Don’t cower from giving regular feedback, stick to the facts, and leave emotion out of the equation. When you get comfortable with confrontation, your employees (yes, even Nancy) will follow suit.

Photo of serious conversation courtesy of Shutterstock.

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