Wednesday, January 6, 2021

You Never Have to be Tough: Management Rule #4

Actions to Take: Remove any trace of your own negative emotion from interactions with subordinates. If you are having emotions you cannot sublimate, delay the conversation. Prepare for hard conversations in advance. Practice what you plan to say and how you plan to say it. 

When I discuss respect in my first orientation meeting with a new employee (stay tuned for blog entries on orientation meetings!), one of the things in my script is, “There is never a place for yelling, or threats, or using power with the goal of invoking fear. Speaking in anger to someone is never acceptable.”  

How many of us can clear that bar, never speaking in anger in the workplace? It was very difficult for me early on in my management career. Something would happen that I disagree with, or an employee would make the same mistake over and over. I would get frustrated that things weren’t the way they should be. Does that sound familiar to anyone reading? Consciously or not, I sometimes used that emotion as a tool. It can be extremely effective to wield a little bit of anger, frustration, or even just annoyance to get your point across.  

You don’t learn until later that you are being extremely effective, but you are having the wrong effect. Study after study has shown that fear leads to avoidance behaviors, not corrective behaviors. You are teaching people 1) not to get caught and 2) not to work with you. 

You might be thinking, “What’s this about fear? I’m not a scary person. Even if I’m a little upset, there’s nothing scary about me!” Bosses are not people. Don’t get me wrong, you are a person. However, your employees don’t think of you as “you.” When they introduce you to someone, they will say “This is Ben, my manager” not, “this is Ben, nice guy” or “this is Ben, human being.” For them, you are the boss first, a person second. 

When I tell you to erase negative emotion from your interactions, I am asking you to do something that is unnatural. When you’re talking about grim, serious things, it is natural to communicate that grimness and seriousness in your tone and demeanor. When you’re talking about something that frustrates you, it is natural to sound frustrated. You might even think that you need to keep that emotion in your voice in order to communicate the negative impact of their actions. 

As a manager, you don’t get the luxury of acting naturally in these situations. When you are dealing with people who are subordinate to you, body language and tone of voice have 1,000 times the weight that you think they have. Even though we all have bosses, even though we’ve been on the other side of the desk, we still never really get it. You cannot overestimate how much of an impact a “tough” attitude will have on a subordinate. If you think you are lightly tapping your employee with a little frustration, they will feel a hammer blow of anger knocking them off their feet. 

When your body language and tone are anything less than relaxed and light-hearted, staff will be focused on your mood instead of your words. If it’s serious enough of a problem, they won’t hear the details. Their blood pressure will rise, their hearts will beat in their ears. All they will think is, “The boss is mad. I messed up. I made the boss mad.” They are not going to accurately gauge the extent of the problem. They are not going to focus on solutions to the problem. They are not going to be thinking of questions to ask you that might help fix the problem. They will go into fight or flight, and you will either end up with a very short meeting that feels somehow incomplete or a very long argument. 

There are managers who defend the tough guy approach, claiming that it is exactly what they want. They will smugly say, “you better believe I didn’t hear about any more problems again.” Well, they are right about one thing, they didn’t hear about any more problems. Fear makes people hide things. It doesn’t make them correct things. And it certainly doesn’t make people want to come to you for help in fixing the thing.  

To be clear, I am not telling you to laugh when you are giving someone a formal performance reprimand. That would be emotionally tone-deaf. We are not trying to baffle our subordinates by having an attitude that is totally jarring to the topic matter. We are trying minimize the impact of our emotional state in the discussion. When you’re talking about an issue, you want your direct reports to be thinking about the issue, not about your mood.  

Therefore, you deliver negative or difficult information the same way you deliver any benign information. Use a tone and body language that is similar to average, every day tone and body language. For most people, that’s mostly-neutral-leaning-to-light-hearted. Stay relaxed, stay positive, and do everything you can to keep your mood off their radar. You will get a more productive and more honest conversation. 

How do we manage to do that? It is not as though we can flip a switch that shuts off our negative thoughts. Just the opposite—negative thoughts tend to be intrusive, repeating themselves in our minds whether we want them or not. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Remind yourself of Management Rule #1. Assume Positive Intent. It can be extremely powerful to convince yourself that, whatever actually happened, your employee (or whoever) meant well. 
  • Remind yourself of their good work. If you are about to have a difficult conversation with your employee, odds are it is about a performance issue. It can be easy to get tunnel vision about it. Before the meeting, step back and think through their positive attributes. What great qualities do they have? What aspects of their work do you appreciate? What things about them as a person are good and likeable?  
  • Practice what you’ll say. I encourage managers to literally script out their most difficult conversations. And why not? We script out presentations. We plan staff meetings. We craft and re-craft emails to roll out new procedures. These conversations are more important and have more long-term impact on your effectiveness than any of those. Give them more thought and energy than your other work, not less. 
  • Practice how you’ll say it. Unlike a staff meeting or project rollout, you likely have some emotions about this topic. You need to take the extra step of considering how you will say the things you need to say. Record yourself in a dry run and listen back. It is not hard—we all have smartphones or a computer. I especially encourage you try recording yourself when you get that first impulse to address some issue or frustration. It will take exactly one listen to realize just how much emotion is leaking out. 

Try these things. Manage your emotions, and I guarantee you will get better results and a more positive work environment out of your team. Remember, better bosses never have to be tough. 

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