Delivering uncomfortable messages candidly and compassionately

Nov 13, 2013

A common tendency of leaders, regardless of style and whether or not they have personal relationships at work, is to avoid uncomfortable conversations. And there are fewer conversations more uncomfortable than letting someone know they aren't meeting expectations.

From my experience, avoidance of this particular conversation increases proportionately with how much a leader cares about the other person’s feelings. For many leaders, candor comes easy when they’re communicating with the office asshole and disappears when they're talking with people they care about. 

That mentality a common mistake, for many reasons, but it is undoubtedly a mistake. Avoiding tough conversations stands to benefit absolutely no one. Not the leader. Not the individual. Not the team. These conversations needs to be had, and the sooner the better.

So, here are some considerations for communicating that expectations aren’t being met to an employee you care about:

  • The message needs to be delivered. Avoidance doesn’t fix anything. It certainly doesn’t fix the behavior that needs improvement. And as much as I love to procrastinate, putting this conversation off causes anxiety that can negatively impact your own performance. It isn’t good for your emotional health. Nor is it good for others on the team, many of which may already recognize expectations aren't being met by the individual.

  • Be honest and candid. Sugarcoating doesn’t save careers; it ruins them. Anything short of honesty and candor obscures the message and does neither of you any favors. I’ve started many of these conversations with utmost honesty by saying, “This is a tough conversation for me. It wouldn’t be tough if I didn’t care. And because we have a good relationship, I have an obligation to be straightforward and honest with you, and there are a few things I need to talk to you about.”

  • Keep it personal and professional. Even if you’ve developed a strong relationship with the individual you need to communicate with, as many great leaders do, it's important to have a balanced approach. There’s no need to toss your leadership style, or an entire relationship, out the window simply because you need to communicate that someone needs to improve. It’s ok to write sound bites. It’s not ok to read them. Be authentic and honest.

  • Tough conversations build trust in the long run. It may not feel like it at the time, but a well delivered message about not meeting expectations will go a long way in building the foundation for a good long-term relationship. For your employee, the temporary feeling of not meeting expectations pales in comparison to the permanent feeling of not knowing where they stand.

  • You're doing them a favor. As Jack Welch, GE's former CEO, has noted, no one should be surprised by bad news. It's cruel to tell someone they haven't been meeting expectations when it's too late to make improvements. Candid communication about expectations is transparent, honest, and humane.

Leaders communicate

In this circumstance, it’s certainly easier to manage a team of people you don’t personally care a great deal about. These messages are a hell of a lot easier to deliver if you’re unconcerned about “silly” things like the emotions and feelings of other people.

Then I recall why that style of management is indeed the loneliest place on earth: because when those managers turn around, no one is following.

Lead, don’t manage. 


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