Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Be More Direct

Actions to take: State what you really mean in workplace communications, particularly with feedback to employees. Avoid indirect comments that tell an employee there is a problem but do not clearly state what the problem is. Put extra time and thought into phrasing your communication to be completely honest while maintaining complete politeness.

Early in my management career, I failed to teach an employee how to improve their customer service skills. This employee had a flat affect, only spoke when asked a question, and tended to respond in monosyllables. We worked in an industry where 1) many customers are in a talkative mood when they are being served and 2) employees often had to spend several minutes looking things up for the customer, which meant a lot of dead air if no one was speaking. 

Customer feedback about this employee was never terrible, but it was never great. They knew it. I knew it. We both wanted them to improve their skills. I gave them feedback on multiple occasions that they needed to be more engaging with customers. 

You are probably not surprised to learn that my employee's skills didn't significantly improve. "Be more engaging" is simply not actionable advice. What is "engaging"? When exactly does engagement happen? What if I already thought I was engaging the customer by answering their questions? Probably, I would just end up frustrated that I'm doing something wrong but don't know what it is that I'm doing wrong. Looking back, I'm sure that is how my employee felt. 

This is something that average managers do all the time—vaguely hint at an issue. The all-time worst offender is "You might want to take a look at that." I would wager money that 90% of the readers have received that feedback at some point in their careers. "You might want to take a look at that" communicates that there is a problem, but it (seemingly intentionally) avoids stating what the problem is or how to fix it.

There is a social phenomenon that push managers toward vague, useless feedback. It's not just about being spineless or unwilling to have tough conversations. It is the concept of "saving face." 

In social situations, it is rude to directly point out another person's flaws. This is why we learned euphemisms in grade school for telling someone that their pants are unzipped. Stating it in a roundabout way is less embarrassing than calling it out directly. Just imagine the difference between telling a friend "Your outfit is totally inappropriate" and "What would you think about wearing this instead?" The former requires your friend to confront your opinion. With the latter, your friend can dodge the implication if they choose to. Maybe they do take your advice, maybe they don't. But you aren't forcing them admit that there was a problem in the first place. That is what it means to allow someone to save face. 

Why doesn't this translate to the workplace? For anything that is unrelated to job performance, it does. If your employee brings in brownies that taste terrible, of course you need to engage in this social practice (unless you work in a bakery). For work-related behaviors, though, there is no option to pretend that the flaw doesn't exist. Giving indirect feedback to an employee is trying to have it both ways. It is saying, "I know I have to address this problem, but I don't want to do the emotional labor of having a real conversation about the problem." Your employees are getting frustrated with you, developing the opinion that you are passive aggressive, and feeling helpless to fix their problems. 

With my employee in the anecdote above, I needed to stop telling them to "be more engaging." I could have said any number of specific things to be more direct. "When you allow minutes of silence while you look things up, it makes the customer feel awkward. Could you work on maintaining conversation with them while you work?" Then, if my employee wants ideas for fixing the issue, I could have had a coaching session to brainstorm ways to do it effectively (have prepared questions for the customer, talk through what you're doing while you work, etc.). 

"Be more direct" applies to all kinds of communication, not just feedback. Be more direct in your initial instructions to employees. Be more direct when training new employees. Be more direct in discussions with your colleagues across departments. 

It is hard to be direct with your opinions. It is socially difficult to stick your neck out, and it literally requires more effort to put honest thoughts into words. The long-term benefits are worth it. With employees, direct feedback will lead to real improvement. Direct instructions will mean less corrective feedback in the first place. With colleagues, direct communication will lead to a reputation for being a straight-shooter. People will come to you when they want a real assessment of their plan, not just platitudes. That is invaluable to both the organization and to your career advancement.

One caveat to round things out. Direct does not mean rude. Direct does not mean angry. This post is not a pass to allow your emotions drive your behaviors. Direct means honest. Honesty and politeness go hand in hand. You have to be more thoughtful and more deliberate about how to phrase your comments if you want to be more direct.

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