how can I stop softening the message in tough conversations with my staff?

A reader writes:

I’m a relatively new manager of a small team, and while I do have a lot of strengths as a manager, I’ve also discovered that I have no idea how to communicate directly. Even when I think I am being direct, I replay the conversation in my head later and realize I padded the whole thing with “softening” language that only distorts the message.

Reading this site regularly and forcing myself to push through situations that feel uncomfortable has helped, but I still feel like I’m doing a lot of trial-and-error in real work situations where the risks of “getting it wrong” are sometimes pretty high. I also occasionally catch myself letting smaller issues slide just to avoid having a conversation about them. A couple of times those issues ended up developing into a situation where I couldn’t let them slide anymore, and of course failing to address things earlier only made the conversation even more awkward.

I’d love to figure out how to practice this stuff at times when there isn’t actually an immediate need for it, so that when a real management conversation or workplace issue arises I’m more comfortable handling it in the moment. How do people who are naturally conflict-avoidant learn to confront things head-on? What specific strategies or resources can people use for improving direct communication and building assertiveness?

I can’t tell you how many managers I talk to where a staff member is having performance issues, the manager is frustrated about why the problems are continuing, and when I ask how direct the manager has been about the issues, the answer turns out to be “not very.”

So you’re far from alone in this, and you have a huge leg up in that you recognize that it’s happening and you’re committed to fixing it. Frankly, just that alone is going to be hugely helpful, because if you’re aware that you tend to do this, it’s going to be harder to keep your pattern going.

Here’s what I’d recommend:

* Get really clear in your head about this fact: You are doing people a disservice by hiding the message. Often when managers soften language in these kinds of conversations, they do it because it feels kinder to them. But it’s not kinder! It’s actually unkind, if the result is that the staff member doesn’t quite hear the message or fully understand how serious it is. That denies them full information about their own work life and about possible consequences. It makes it more likely that they’ll continue frustrating or disappointing you, and that has real consequences for their reputation, your assessment of their work, raises, project assignments, their overall dynamic with you, and future references. That’s not fair. (And wouldn’t you hate if if your boss weren’t being direct and straight with you?)

The kindest thing is to be clear and direct so that people have access to the same information that you do. Work on really internalizing that and believing it, because it will change the way you act.

* Before any conversation that you feel has the potential to be uncomfortable or that you might end up softening in a not-ideal way, write out talking points for yourself ahead of time. What are the key things that you need to communicate? What wording will do that? Write out the specific language you’ll use.

* Then, practice saying it out loud. This step is important because, with awkward or tough messages, the hard part is saying it out loud. So imagine yourself in the actual conversation, and say your talking points out loud. Are you internally cringing? Are you attempting to soften the language? Say it enough times that you become comfortable and can imagine saying it in the real conversation.

* Since you know you have a tendency to soften your language in the moment, think about the ways that it might happen here if you’re not vigilant — and then resolve not to do it. Just going through this thought process and being cognizant of the issue makes it a whole lot less likely that you’ll slip backwards. For example, if you know that you need to tell someone that an issue is serious enough that it could end up jeopardizing their job, you might know you’ll be uncomfortable saying that explicitly when you talk — because that’s a hard message to deliver. So vow to yourself beforehand that you will be clear on that point and that you won’t let yourself get away with not saying it.

And to be clear, being direct with people and not softening your language doesn’t mean that you have to be robotic or a jerk. You can still be clear and direct while using a kind tone. In fact, you normally should use a kind tone, even when you’re delivering a no-nonsense kind of message. So maybe you can push your softening impulses into tone, not words, and let your tone sound concerned and empathetic — just keep your words themselves direct.

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. MaryMary

    Is there another manager (maybe even your boss) who would be willing to role play some of these conversations with you? It may seem silly or awkward, but it’s the best way to practice. An experienced manager will know some of the places an employee is likely to push back, and can give you feedback if your message isn’t clear.

    1. A Jane

      +1
      And another manager can help with suggested language to use in situation too, especially when/if you are cascading info down the management chain.
      This is not a strong area for me either, so I really appreciate the tips from Alison, thank you!

    2. Katie the Fed

      That’s what I did before my first difficult conversation with a subordinate. We role played. He threw everything he had at me – blame shifting, getting upset, trying to divert the topic, everything. It was really helpful – I felt I was really ready when it was time for the difficult conversation. It got way easier after that.

      1. Anony-moose

        I love this idea! I don’t have direct reports right now but we role play a lot in our team and it is one of the most effective tools we have! People think I’m nuts but there is nothing like practicing a pitch out loud and answering questions in person to prepare you.

        My boss likes to throw really curveball questions at me when we are doing this. According to her one time someone DID say ” well why should I even bother funding you anyways?” Luckily those questions are not the norm!

    3. Juli G.

      Your HR person is another possible outlet. I am always happy to help managers prepare for these conversations since I often deal with the aftermath of crappy ones.

      1. HR Manager

        Yes, please! I always suggest stopping by to help guide through conversations, and I wish managers took me up on that more often.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius

    Three things to add:

    Don’t smile. Seriously. You can never smile during these conversations because your face betrays your message. I know people who do it out of nerves, but it doesn’t matter. You want people to take you seriously.

    Don’t sandwich criticism. I’ve heard this advice, and I can’t believe people still do it. All the other person will hear are the two compliments you gave him instead of the one bad thing. It’s not your job to make him feel good; it’s your job to manage.

    Be specific. Be as specific as possible. Everything you criticize has to have an actionable directive. Don’t tell people how to be; tell then what to do.

    1. Connie-Lynne

      I don’t know, I can smile during these conversations and still get results — in fact, I’d feel awkward and self-conscious trying not to smile.

      But oh, yes, definitely do not give them a shit sandwich. In fact, I prefer to discuss performance problems separately from what someone is doing well. That way, there’s far less possibility of them only hearing the good parts and not the bad.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Huh. What kind of employees do you have that hear only the good? I’ve pretty much always encountered people who focus on the bad and don’t take in the good (including me!).

        I don’t love the good-bad-good sandwich, either, because it feels forced. But I can’t imagine hearing two compliments and one criticism and taking away the idea that I’m excelling.

        1. AndersonDarling

          Yeah, I think being supportive is better than a crap sandwich. You may have a performance issue to address, but if you follow it with “This is how we can fix this” or “Let’s work together to find a solution” then it doesn’t sound like a pre-termination discussion.
          This won’t fit every problem, but I would rather have support than shallow, feel good comments.

        2. Michele

          I agree. I have a manager who never approaches me just to say, “good job”, so I know that if she comes up to me and start complimenting my work, the crap is going to hit the fan. Just have an honest conversation. Don’t make me sit there wondering what the problem is and getting nervous.

          1. Connie-Lynne

            Oooh, that’s awful, too. I always make a point to have regular 1:1s with my team, so that they aren’t always feeling like any time I want to talk privately, it’s going to be bad.

        3. MaryMary

          There are a lot of people who don’t want to hear that they’re not doing a good job. If you say one positive thing, they’ll hang on to that. If you only give developmental feedback, they won’t take it seriously or will disagree that it’s valid. It can be very frustrating as a manager, and that old advice about a feedback sandwich (or my CEO is big on “softening statements,” which might be worse) doesn’t help.

        4. Connie-Lynne

          A lot of my truly high-performing staff have the problem you describe, Victoria, and always hear the bad, and none of the good! They can only see where they aren’t measuring up, and not how great they are in every other area.

          But one of the sad realities of life is that most of the people I have to have “you need to improve” conversations with are so un-self-aware that they kind of blithely assume they’re awesome. So they hear messages that reinforce that, and discount other messages.

          The whole situation is so very Dunning-Kruger.

        5. Marcy

          I’m the same. You could give me 100 compliments and one criticism and I will be walking away feeling terrible about the criticism. I guess it still makes sense even when the employee only hears the bad not to use the compliment sandwich- he/she wouldn’t hear the compliments anyway. It would be a waste.

    2. Florida

      Agree about the sandwich. The other thing that happens is that sometimes they only hear the criticism and not the two compliments. I think it is good to end a conversation on a positive note, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a compliment. It could be a feeling that we are going to make these changes. As a result, we will have a better workplace and get more done. And I have 100% confidence that you are capable and willing to make these changes. (That’s the feeling, not necessarily the words you need to say.)

    3. Sarah Nicole

      I’m not sure if I agree with the part about not smiling. I had a really great manager who wanted to address an issue of me coming in a few minutes late each day. That was one of my only problems, so when we talked about it, she kept her normal smiley self. The issue didn’t call for a stern face and serious warning. She addressed it early enough that she didn’t have to warn me, but just to ask me to bring that priority back in line with the rest of the team.

      In these situations where there is a small problem and you are catching it early on, I think it’s fine to stay conversational about it, so long as it’s coming across that it’s something that needs to change.

      1. fposte

        I think what needs to be avoided is inappropriate and defensive smiling, the “but we still like each other, right?” smiling.

        I also think that managers, especially female managers, do need to be comfortable with not smiling. It’s fine to smile a lot, but it has to be okay not to smile, too.

        1. JB

          Agreed.

          Example: when I talk with interns about their work I’ve corrected, I sometimes start the conversation smiling and reassuring them that they are doing a good job. This is often helpful because otherwise so many of them tend to walk away from our conversations thinking they are failing at lawyering, when really it’s just that this kind of work takes training that law school doesn’t teach you, and I want them to be the best lawyers they can be. When you get a draft back with marks all over it, and you then have to sit there while someone explains everything you did wrong, and you already have imposter syndrome in your new profession, it can really kill your confidence. So I smile to indicate that yes, this stuff needs to be fixed going forward, but no, I don’t think you’re incompetent. It’s seemed to work well so far.

          On the other hand, I’ve had conversations with employees in the past where smiling would have been totally inappropriate because it would have made me look like a jerk or like what I was saying wasn’t a big deal.

          1. afiendishthingy

            I think I definitely had a situation recently where I smiled while giving corrective feedback and it may have made the employee think it wasn’t a big deal, even though my language was not ambiguous (I first responded to a text he had sent with “In the future you need to tell a supervisor if a shift is rescheduled or canceled” (he works in client’s homes), then I gave him identical feedback in person a few hours later except after I said it once he made a comment about my having “bad luck” at this particular house before (bad luck meaning I showed up at the house to supervise him and check on the client only the shift had been canceled and he didn’t tell me), and I responded “Ideally I shouldn’t have to rely on luck, because you should be telling me” and I smiled a bit when I said that last. His response? “I’ll keep that in mind.” And then a week later he stood another supervisor up. I definitely think MOST employees would have understood I wasn’t making a suggestion that he could opt not to follow but I wonder if smiling and saying that IDEALLY he should follow the policy made him ignore me.

            1. Clever Name

              “Ideally” doesn’t mean you must do this, so unfortunately, your employee is probably thinking, “well, it’s not ideal, but it’s probably ok” when it isn’t.

              1. afiendishthingy

                Yeah, I get that and do wish I hadn’t said that – the “bad luck” comment just irritated me so much that I made a semi-flippant remark and smiled because it was that or lose it – because I’d already at that point told him twice that YOU NEED TO DO THIS without any qualifiers.

    4. MaryMary

      I think you do need to watch things like body language and smiling. I have a nervous giggle, and I really need to be careful about it when delivering feedback (or any difficult conversation, clients don’t want you to giggle when giving them bad news).

      I’ve also had people over-interpret positive body language. I was listening to an employee complain about a changing managers, and I was very careful not to verbally agree with anything she said. But I did nod at times, and she told people I’d agreed with her when I never *said* anything of the sort. It got me into some hot water with her manager.

    5. Cheesecake

      Yes to no sandwich. I believe you need to start conversation with your point. It shows how important it is. Once you start with something else it is hard to come back and tempting to just go other direction entirely. I haven’t seen a lot of people who can use this method right.

    6. LQ

      I think you can smile. But if you are a nervous laugher you really need to work on that. It is super uncomfortable for the person you are trying to coach.

      But smiling can be ok as a part of the being kind part of it. Not a big, this is a conspiracy and I don’t mean it smile. But I really want you to do well *smile*. You need to do specific thing and specific thing *don’t smile*.

      But for the most part you’re coaching someone because you do want them to do well, or you’d just fire them. So it’s ok to smile sometimes.

    7. danr

      And don’t pile on with the criticism… a “that reminds me” will shut down the communication and the person will only remember the last item. Also, ask for a repeat of the problem from the person. You might find that your subordinate heard something completely different from what you thought you said. If you are proposing a course of action, ask for a repeat there too. My last manager and I went through some very rocky times before we straightened this out. Then our interactions and my work was much better.

    8. Natalie

      Ugh, the sandwich thing.

      The only time I’ve ever used this technique and found it remotely appropriate was in college, when I had classes that involved peer criticism. If people weren’t directed to write down 3 good things and 3 bad things, they either refused to give any real criticism or spent the entire crit tearing the other person apart. But that is a learning environment, where part of what you are theoretically learning is how to give and receive a critique.

  3. Connie-Lynne

    Like Alison says, I write out my talking points ahead of time and I bring my notes to the meeting. I take notes on what my reports say, and then, afterward, I send out a followup email.

    I close with, “I’m going to write up what we discussed and send it here just so that there’s no confusion. This isn’t a formal write-up, but I do want to see change coming out of our conversation.”

    The follow-up helps cement that there are specific changes and behaviors that need to happen.

    1. AnotherFed

      I really like that language! I struggle with how to address the follow up email with one of my engineers. He’s terrible at remembering/correctly interpreting something that’s been discussed in person, so an email afterwards is just necessary (for everything, with everyone, not just these kinds of conversations), but feels awkward in terms of getting across the same tone as the conversation rather than a more formal write up. I think I’m borrowing this for the email, too!

  4. Florida

    I hear people say, “I dropped subtle hints. Why isn’t he getting this message?’ Um, because subtle hints are, well, subtle. Yep, indirect and subtle messages are rarely effective.

    I know for me sometimes it’s hard to give direct feedback because it makes me uncomfortable. (I’m not worried about the recipient. I’m worried about me.) In my mind, I think I’m being a jerk. But you are right, that so much of it has to do with the tone. If your intent is to be a jerk, then the tone will be jerky. But if your intent is to be helpful and create a more productive workplace, the tone will be right.

    I’ve also found that the more I do it, the easier it gets. You try being direct once, and you realize, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was actually productive.” And each time it gets a little easier. Hopefully, one day it will be second nature.

    1. Adam

      “I hear people say, ‘I dropped subtle hints. Why isn’t he getting this message?’ Um, because subtle hints are, well, subtle. Yep, indirect and subtle messages are rarely effective.”

      +1. As a manager you are not Mr. Miyagi and I am not the young pupil trying to achieve spiritual enlightenment while simultaneously breaking concrete blocks with my bare hands. Nor are we dating and you’re trying to slyly get me to figure out where you want me to take you for dinner on your birthday. Let me know what I’m doing wrong and how it needs to be fixed so we can all get on with life. It drives me nuts when the people in charge won’t give you a straight answer when there isn’t a good reason to…

    2. ThursdaysGeek

      Those were two very good points! Clearly know your intentions, and practice will make it easier.

    3. ErinVeine

      And if you are giving subtle hints instead of just telling your employees to do something, then it’s a much greater chance they will not do that thing, even if they pick up on the subtle hint. For me, a subtle hint is not a binding directive. For example: my manager would looove it if me and my team worked weekends, but he’s never come right out and told us that we need to work weekends. He just drops these awkwards hints here and there. I pick up on them, but am I working weekends? No. Working weekends is not part of my employment agreement, and until I am directly told otherwise, I’m not going to do it.

      1. Windchime

        Exactly. You want me to do something? Tell me. Don’t hint and beat around the bush because I will come away from our meeting not understanding that you were giving me instructions. (Because you weren’t. It sounded to me like you were just throwing ideas out there.)

    4. simonthegrey

      Also, some people – like my spouse – can’t see subtle if it swims up and bites them. It isn’t that they’re ignoring, at least in his case – he simply has no idea. You have to come out and tell him what the issue is.

      1. Wanna-Alp

        Also, sometimes people can see that there is some hinting going on, but they don’t necessarily know what the issue is that needs resolving, they just know that someone is looking at them in a meaningful way. Even if they guess, they don’t know if they are right or not.

        Gentle directness is definitely the best way.

  5. me too I ate one sour too

    I just want to say thanks for addressing this. I, too, have issues with this kind of thing.

    I’m fairly good at accepting criticism – even harsh criticism – from my bosses and co-workers, and it doesn’t turn into a grudge or ruin the relationship; maybe I lick my wounds a but, but then things go back to normal.

    But I have “confidence issues” in my ability to express just the right amount of criticism, in just the right form, so that I won’t ‘lose’ a person or persons working for me.

    1. The Other Dawn

      Me, too!

      When I get feedback from my boss I value the times he flat out says, “You f***** up big time. Don’t do it again!” There’s no question that I made a mistake. I think I value it so much, because I had two former bosses that did this. I always knew where I stood and had a tremendous amount of respect for them. They were never unkind, just very direct and matter-of-fact. But, yet, I’m a sugar coater. :/

    2. OP

      This is really helpful — I’m also good at accepting criticism and I’m realizing that in a lot of ways I’m just not giving my employees enough credit. If I can handle being on the receiving end of a tough feedback conversation, I’m sure they can handle it too without me trying so hard to cushion it for them.

  6. Jerry Vandesic

    In situations like this I recommend the book “Difficult Conversations” by Stone and Patton. The authors do a great job outlining the issues and make specific recommendations.

    1. TeapotCounsel

      I came here to give a similar recommendation. I strongly recommend “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson. It’s excellent.

  7. The Other Dawn

    I totally could have written this letter myself. I’ve always had a problem with this. It’s strange, because I’m often told I’m very matter-of-fact (a bit too much sometimes), like when I give an opinion, and I really want my manager to just lay it on the line when talking to me (“You f***** up big time.”), but when it comes to having to say something to others, whether it’s peers or direct reports, I just clam up. I think I feel like I’m being mean, or I’m bothering them. And what else is strange is that there are certain people where I feel the need to be incredibly direct and it gets my blood going, but others I shy away from. I’ve noticed that I have a sense of intimidation sometimes, even if it’s someone that reports to me. Kind of like I feel like they’re smarter than me or somehow have a leg up on me. It’s such a struggle, but I’ll reread this post over and over again until I get it through my mind that I’m the manager and I’m being unkind by NOT being direct.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Go to the extreme. Let’s pretend you are definitely bothering them, you sound mean to them, they are smarter than you, and they have a leg up on you. Let’s suppose all of that is true. (It’s not but let’s roll with this here.)

      They are not the boss. You are. None of this prevents you from be a good quality boss.
      They need you to make sure they are following company policies, so they do not get fired. They, also, need you to make sure they are doing the tasks correctly and getting the correct results, so they do not get fired.

      In short a good boss helps their employee STAY employed, today, next week, next year.

      There have been times where I have said “I know I am sounding like a pain in the butt- but X has to go to the left not the right and here is why _____.” And why can be as simple as “The customer likes it that way. And we aim to please.” If you chose to provide a reason it does not have to be a complex reason. I have said “Because that is the way upper management wants things done.”

      I sincerely doubt you are being mean. But if that worries you, look for feed back at a later date. For example an off-the-cuff remark such as “you always wait until the last minute to tell us about a major change”. That remark could be your feed back. Answer as if they had said it in question form. “Yeah, that is because of x and y, usually. This time it was because of z. I can’t change why this happens.”

      If you think you have people that are smarter than you, you are lucky. Figure out how to tap that brain power. Put them in a place where they excel. Same goes for people who seem to have a leg up on you. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. Nor do you have to have all the advantages of a good life. You do have to guide them, correct, praise, instruct and all that stuff. People know when their boss takes care of them and they will tend to take care of that boss.
      Focus on being fair and being clear. And make sure they know you hear them when they are speaking with you. They need you to do that.

      One of the best things I have heard is “being a boss is a service position”. Sometimes that service means telling people stuff that is hard to listen to, in order to protect their jobs/licensing/work effort/etc.

  8. C Average

    I’ve occasionally had to deliver coaching to people whom I’m training or supervising.

    I find it helpful to think back on a couple of excellent but very direct managers I’ve had in the past, people who seemed to have no trouble at all delivering tough messages. I think of how I can, in some cases, remember the exact words that they used to convey important feedback, and how that feedback actually made me a measurably better worker. They’re like Yoda to my Luke.

    I try to channel their honesty and their vast goodheartedness, and I hope that my carefully chosen words help others as much as similar words have helped me. Having them in mind helps reinforce the idea that sometimes tough talk = great management.

    1. claire

      When I taught art and design, I tried to channel Tim Gunn from Project Runway, and it worked.

      1. Windchime

        I picture you in your natty checked shirt and tie, with your finger on your chin, saying, “Honestly, I’m perplexed!”

        But seriously, if there is anyone who knows how to deliver criticism in a kind yet very direct way, it’s Tim Gunn. There is never any doubt about how he feels when his critique is over, yet he is never deliberately mean or hurtful.

      2. Jen S. 2.0

        I see him saying “that’s … a whole lotta look.” That one always makes me giggle.

  9. Armchair Analyst

    Sometimes I write out an email, with a big explanation and background, and then the question or point.
    Then, I move the point of the email up to the first line, and keep it still, repeated at the end.

    This is basically what you want to do when talking, according to AAM.

    1. Jo

      Right – a here’s-my-point sandwich, as opposed to the shit sandwich described by early commenters. :)

    2. SophiaB

      I love people who do this. If you tell me what you need from me right off the bat, I’m happy and I can listen to the rest of what you have to say. If you keep me guessing what it is you want, I get too stressed to actually listen to what you’re saying. People who lead with the point are the best people.

  10. CrazyCatLady

    OP, I’m glad you recognize that this needs to improve. I’m not a manager, but as an employee, I get incredibly frustrated when I receive sugar-coated feedback or feedback that I’m not sure is even directed at me. I know it’s meant to “soften the blow” or with the best intentions, but it does me no favors. While I know there are some people who will get defensive and hurt, I think most employees appreciate being told directly what they’re doing wrong or could improve on. And actually, even if I do get defensive or hurt (hurt is more likely), I’m still glad for it in the long run.

    1. nona

      I agree, and I think of constructive criticism as a compliment, neutral at worst: It means that my work’s valuable enough to improve.

      Not everyone sees it that way, but OP, you might find it easier to give actionable feedback directly when you think of it as a positive thing.

  11. Katie the Fed

    One thing I do sometimes is follow up with an email. This serves two purposes – gives them an opportunity to really absorb what I’m saying, and provides documentation. Like this:

    “Boutros,

    I think our meeting today was productive. To recap – your performance is suffering in XX area and I need to see immediate and sustained improvement. As we discussed, the plan is XXX and XXX. We will meet again next Friday to discuss how you’re doing.”

    If they’re smart they usually know that this also means documentation and they’ll take it very seriously.

    1. C Average

      Yes! Having feedback in writing, where I can re-read it, is super helpful. Especially if it’s feedback that stings in the moment–at that point I’m focusing so hard on not reacting defensively that it can be challenging to effectively process what I’m hearing. Being able to return to it when I’m feeling more cool-headed helps significantly.

    2. MaryMary

      I agree that written feedback and email follow ups can be very helpful, but some employees have a very negative reaction. To Katie’s point, many realize that documentation means this is important feedback, but some people panic and assume it means they will be fired imminently. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, but be prepared some extreme reactions (tears, anger, defensiveness that wasn’t there before…).

      1. Katie the Fed

        Yeah, it kind of depends (for me) on whether or not the employee is getting it. Some need a good wake up call sometimes.

  12. AndersonDarling

    As the OP mentioned, these things should be caught in the moment. Saying “That teapot handle should be a little more curved” in the moments is so much better than bringing an employee into their manager’s office, closing the door, staring at each other, then saying “We need to talk about your teapot handles . . .” It is the same message, but if I was told in my managers office, I would think it was a fire-able offence.

    1. Clever Name

      This. I’ve been on the receiving end of feedback that would have been better delivered in the moment. When it was finally brought up, I was left wondering why the manager didn’t say something in the moment and instead waited until my annual review to bring it up.

  13. cuppa

    This is really good advice that I’m still working on, too. I’m conflict-averse, so I struggle, although I’ve improved a lot. I have found that building it up in my mind is usually much worse than just addressing things in the first place.
    If I ever think to myself, “Ugh, why are they still doing that,” I realize that I’ve missed addressing something.

  14. Michele

    This is something that I definitely need to work on. I tend to soften my language out of habit because (and I do think this has to do with being a woman) I have been criticized for being too direct. I get frustrated with myself because I realize that I have developed the habit of including something that borders on an apology with everything that I say.

  15. MissM

    If you don’t already do so, start having regular one-on-one meeting with staff. This is a good place to bring to bring up those small issues before they become bigger. having a regular meeting in which you discuss how things are going can give you lots of practice with giving feedback.

    1. AnotherHRPro

      Yes, this is the point I wanted to make. Alison provided some great advice on providing feedback but didn’t address how to ensure that you give it regularly. Since the OP is struggling with giving it in a timely manner, having designated and prescheduled times will make it more natural. As part of these meetings you should have the employee bring you up to speed on what they have been working on, what is coming up, what they need help on, etc. The manager should be giving feedback, guidance, etc.

  16. nona

    I just really want to say that I’m impressed that you’re working on this, OP, and everyone’s advice here is good.

    I work with people who are indirect sometimes, my family tends to be indirect or passive-aggressive, and it’s just good to see people learning another way to communicate. I’m trying to learn the other way around (learning to understand hints, subtle suggestions, and things like that).

    1. Michele

      My family is of the “let it fester” philosophy, which didn’t do my conflict resolution skills any favors.

  17. maggie

    “How do people who are naturally conflict-avoidant learn to confront things head-on?”

    This is such a tough skill to learn. I just visualized right now how I do it and I really try to treat them like a friend who just doesn’t know any better (ie, if I invited a friend to a volunteer event with me, how would I explain the reasons why something has to be done a certain way, including what happens should the way they’re doing it continues). Some folks might see this as not mature, but I was given some incredible advice early on in my waiting tables career – you have no idea how alike these two roles are!! – and it was basically to be myself but with a lot of responsibility. And I am the kind of person that is overly empathetic so that’s the way I approach a tough talk, I just try to make sure I am not condescending (this is more dependent on the relationship up until this point).

    About choosing your battles. Pretend you own the place. I’m dead serious. If you think you’re responsible for everything, you will only let slide the things that are personality based, and quickly stamp out anything that could derail your business. Take ownership. :)

    1. cuppa

      It’s amazing how much different everything seems when you think to take ownership. Probably the biggest learning experience of my career was in my first solo-management position. I replaced a manager that I really looked up to, and I just planned on keeping everything the way it already was unless necessity dictated that something needed to change. This led to me really not taking ownership of my space and my team, and that had a lot of consequences. I even kept the files in the file cabinet the same and just added to them! Really, if you’re a manager, take ownership. It helps even at the small levels.

    2. Not So NewReader

      I ended up using my huge desire to avoid conflict to my advantage, by speaking up early.
      People get less flustered if you quietly tell them the first time they make the mistake. If you let them do it ten times they are more apt to get angry with you. “How come you are speaking up now? I have been doing it this way for months!”
      I always told myself, for every one thing I see, ten things are getting right by me. This also helped me to speak up because it made me aware that it was my job to watch this stuff.

  18. Anon for this

    Is the OP my boss? Ugh. My manager spent part of last year giving me vague and sometimes contradictory feedback, apparently while getting more and more frustrated with my performance. (One memorable quote: “I don’t know what you need to do to fix this, but you just need to fix it!” What am I even supposed to do with that feedback?!) I tried repeatedly to make changes to address his feedback, as I was hearing it: providing lists of the work on my plate, giving updates during bi-weekly 1:1 meetings, copying him on emails, anything I could think of. None of that was what he wanted, and I apparently couldn’t read his mind well enough. The whole thing culminated in him putting me on a PIP (which I’ve since passed with flying colors). That led directly to a poor annual review, and naturally, no raise. So now my professional reputation in this company is shot, because that documentation will never disappear from my file. I’d hoped to make a very long career in this company–who knows how that will play out now. My morale’s in the toilet, I’m struggling not to totally disengage, and I’m super bummed because otherwise, I love the work I do and the rest of my team is awesome.

    All because my boss spent months giving me feedback that was softened so much that did I not fully grasp how frustrated he was, never mind what he actually wanted me to do differently.

    1. MaryMary

      I disagree that successfully completely a PIP will permanently ruin your reputation at a company. I’ve known employees who struggled in a certain role but went on to be very successful in another. If your manager is that bad at giving direction and feedback, the PIP may reflect much more on him than you.

      And don’t worry too much about your personnel file. At OldJob I had a year where I had four different managers (one manager transfered to another team, one resigned, I temporarily reported to the division head before someone got promoted into the manager role) and my file was lost. HR had documentation on the big stuff, but all the manager notes and documentation were gone.

    2. OP

      Thanks for sharing your experiences on the other side of this — really helps drive home how frustrating this is for an employee who genuinely wants to improve. I would never say something like “I don’t know what you need to do to fix this, but you just need to fix it!”, but I’d probably end up saying something equally unhelpful like “It seems like maybe X isn’t getting done? It would be great if you could focus a little more on that.” It’s much easier for me to be direct in writing when I have time to think and revise. When I’m trying to respond out-loud in real-time my brain defaults to polite suggestion mode.

  19. Jules

    I actually like what my boss said today during our meeting, “We are not concentrating on the person, we are discussing the process.” When giving feedback, make it about the work and not about the person. Processes/delivery can be improved. People are people, they are who they are. By sticking to the work and not the person, there is a better tendency for the person to listen and improve vs. defensive/(s)he is gunning for me.

  20. Ms Enthusiasm

    What a great letter and response! I agree so much that it can be really hard to know what to do about those “little issues”. Sometimes it seems like the best thing to do is to let them go, but as you said then they turn into big issues. I think there is a huge problem with managers not wanting to be perceived as a micro-manager – which might mean to them to let little things go. We have that issue now on my team with a new employee. He went on and on about how his previous boss was a micro-manager. And now we can see why, he is awful. He really needs someone to stay on top of him all the time. I think most managers don’t want to do that but I also think there is a fine line. How do you stay on top of the “little things” without becoming the dreaded micro-manager?

    1. cat

      What I used to do for my boss was put together a status report – essentially an Excel spreadsheet detailing in a few words every project I’m working on, the actions taken in the previous week and what I planned to do on it in the next week. I also had a column for key dates. I reviewed this with him every Friday in our 1:1s (though I generally didn’t walk him through it line by line – I more just briefed him on pain points and places where I needed his assistance or approval). He never asked me to put it together – I did it because he was new to the team and I wanted to be able to show him the workload and get him quickly up to speed on my projects. I did end up finding it very helpful for me as well because it served almost as a “To Do” list – I had one places where key details for everything I was working on lived and I could update as I took action throughout the week.

      I stopped keeping up with it because my boss got up to speed and we have a fantastic working relationship where I can just turn around and ask him any random questions and he can do the same to me, but sometimes I miss my status report just because it kept me very organized and on top of the “little things.” Maybe you could have your employee implement a similar report that you review with them on a regular basis?

  21. brightstar

    I’m so happy this was posted as I’m a new supervisor who’s having to deal with a similar issue. Except the difficult conversation was last week and I feel like I could have handled it better. I worried that, despite it being about issues I’d addressed as soon as I noticed, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

    I’m working on a performance review of an employee who is having problems with extremely basic tasks. Such as keeping work that the entire office deals with sorted. As they are extremely well educated and performing in an entry level role, I get frustrated that things such as sorting are having to be explained more than one or two times. My manager has told me it is getting to the point of formal action. So, I’m asking for advice.

    The performance review is later this month I’m working on the documentation now. I have been instructed to make it very thorough, listing both good and bad things about the job performance. Last week I told the employee that these minor things are adding up and that we are reaching the point of formal action such as putting on a PIP, etc and that they have a month to improve in these areas.

    I’m debating between an informal meeting to give the employee a heads up or just addressing these things at the performance review itself (which should be in about 2 weeks) while trying not to get too frustrated that the interns are able to perform these duties with no further instruction after hearing once while they have been coached for five months about very.basic.things. Examples are again sorting and using the incorrect forms after performing a duty for over a month after two weeks of my sitting with them to train them and having step by step, illustrated, instructions.

    I do like the idea of role playing and will most likely do that. During the difficult conversation I got push back and an attitude of “That isn’t my job”, even though it’s both in the job description and has been told it’s part of the job.

    Any other advice on dealing with this?

    1. fposte

      Why can’t the performance review occur at the end of the probation month rather than being a separate earlier meeting?

      1. brightstar

        My understanding is that there are specific dates we are required to have performance reviews completed by for the entire organization. And that the review would be part of the paperwork to extend the probationary period.

        1. fposte

          By “extend the probationary period,” do you mean beyond the month that you initially gave him? But he won’t have had that full month yet, so it seems unfair to make a decision early unless he’s really tanked it and you’re just going to fire him, and it seems unwise to give him more rope before you’ve judged whether he’s earned it.

          It just feels like there are two different schedules here that are going to make things unnecessarily confusing.

          1. brightstar

            I think I understand the confusion. The employee is has been here for five months and is still under probation. Rather than going ahead and making them a permanent employee at the end of his six months, there’s talk of extending the probationary period for another two months.

            I’ve noticed improvement this week so I’m hoping the extension won’t be necessary. But I’ll definitely have to address the problems in their review. I’m hoping for “This was a problem, xyz steps were taken to correct it and it has been corrected.”

            1. fposte

              Oh, okay; there’s the warning period and then there’s the policy probation, thanks for explaining.

              I don’t offhand see a need for a separate meeting unless there’s anything time sensitive involved; he’s already gotten what sounds like a fairly formal meeting, since there was a time frame and the prospect of a PIP invoked, and presumably this is the main thing you’d be discussing about his performance anyway. So the performance review could be a formal subsequent discussion of the issues raised previously.

  22. Zahra

    I think you can have other “difficult” talks too: if you go to a restaurant and the food is subpar, do you still say “Yes, everything is alright.”? If so, stop doing that (to be clear, if everything is fine, say so). Say that the food is cold, it’s not cooked as you asked (getting a well-done steak when I asked for rare would get that answer), whatever the problem is. Then, stop talking and see what the waiter will do.

    Most conflict avoidant people will not say anything or bitch to their friends after they exit the restaurant. My husband says I’m rude when I do that and that I embarrass him. Tough luck. I’m paying money for my food and I don’t want to eat cold food.

    tl;dr: There are more occasions to have frank discussions about things that bother you than you might think. Use them.

    1. OP

      Good point, and you’re spot on — I’m that person who will always say everything is fine. I also love the point about stating the problem and then shutting up. When I state a problem I tend to get uncomfortable and just. keep. talking. to try and smooth over the discomfort. I’m definitely going to work on cutting myself off.

    2. AnotherFed

      This is an interesting perspective. I wouldn’t hesitate to return something at a restaurant if were cooked improperly or not what I ordered. I wouldn’t even consider that a difficult conversation.

      Change the situation to rejecting something at work because it was done incorrectly or not what I asked for, and my opinion and framing of the situation totally change! It’s suddenly “WE need to communicate better.” not “I asked for X, but you gave me Y instead.” Maybe that’s because I don’t want to come off as antagonistic, but it’s definitely a softening of language I wasn’t even noticing before!

  23. MrChops

    This is really sound advice. I’ve seen formal action taken against a manager who had this exact problem. While very experienced and very direct in nature, her skills in directly talking to her employee about the seriousness of some concerns were cushioned because of the employee’s disposition as a relatively sweet, and well-liked person. Though they did show immediate improvement there was still some disappointment that went unaddressed and the employee was abruptly separated from the company. The timing was the absolute worst possible because of some protected action at the time on the part of the employee due to something entirely unrelated performance. I have no idea how things slipped past but some of our internal policies weren’t followed, etc, etc… you guys can imagine how it went from there. Federal action was taken on the part of the employee. So, managers new and old out there… it really benefits the company’s bottom line in addition to you and the employee not to be as direct as possible.

    1. Windchime

      Is this a typo, or did you mean to say that “it really benefits the company’s bottom line in addition to you and the employee not to be as direct as possible.” If so, how? It seems that being direct would always be best.

  24. Barney Stinson

    A good way to approach giving negative feedback is to run at it as coaching. And if you’re catching things when they’re small, it IS coaching.

    You say, “Here are some examples of work that aren’t turning out the way we need it to. Here’s how to do it better.”

    That kind of conversation isn’t scary at all; it’s helpful, and I find that employees are receptive to that approach.

  25. OP

    Thank you to Alison for answering this, and to everyone contributing here! So much of what I’ve read on other sites stops at “Just be direct!” and, for someone like me who isn’t naturally direct, the huge lingering question is “HOW?!” This is the first time I feel like I’ve gotten concrete, actionable advice on how to improve and I can’t wait to put these ideas into practice.

  26. DarjeelingAtNoon

    As a recovering conflict avoidant person, I found reading about the difference between passive, assertive, and aggressive communication was really helpful. It can be a recurring cycle to default to passive communication until anger mounts and then the aggressive side erupts. Just being aware of my tendency helps so much.
    Here is a link that gives a brief thumbnail of the subject: http://www.va.gov/vetsinworkplace/docs/em_eap_assertive.html

  27. AnotherFed

    Good question and discussion! This is really apropos for me – I am going to have to have a conversation with a direct report about asking questions and/or speaking up if he doesn’t understand something. He’s already quiet, shy, and not a great communicator, so I really don’t want to make him shut down further. He just doesn’t seem to realize that by guessing how things work in technical reports just makes him look like an idiot and have to redo the report, while a few questions up front will not make him seem dumb and will let him get a report out the door on time! I probably need to just say that instead of softening it. :)

  28. LizzyP

    It’s really encouraging to see so many of you as managers looking to be effective in your communications. I’m struggling so much with a manager now that just seems to want to send critical emails as a means of communication and I’m having a hard time adjusting to this kind of style. If I ask questions about the feedback a lot of times her reply is unclear and so I’m left very confused and feeling uneasy, as in ‘ok, let me send this email (she wants to be BCC on my emails for ‘filing purposes’ but more than half she will critisize) and see if I don’t get zapped. I’ve composed emails for my manager before so my skills aren’t in question but there are other specifics she does not communicate that I have no way of knowing, but I’ll still get zinged regardless. Meaning of in one email I let someone know “Dr. Cruella is looking to accommodate all attendees” in one email is ok, in another I’m told I should always say ‘the team’ so… I’m starting to hate working there, cause I’m not a mind reader!

    So let me say, don’t do that!

  29. Altoid

    I have a full time employee that is working a part time schedule (every other day). I often don’t catch his mistakes until the following day, when he isn’t here. I hesitate to point it out in an e-mail, but I feel like broaching the subject after the fact is more difficult for a number of reasons, including I might forget, his hours don’t coincide with mine, etc. But, it’s bad form to point out mistakes in an e-mail as opposed to in person, right?

      1. Altoid

        Thanks! We have discussed this issue in the past, but it doesn’t seem to get any better. I don’t think he hears me. Regardless, I guess we will have another discussion tomorrow. Without getting into the whole story, it looks like these discussions are my only option with him. In any event, love this blog! I read it daily. It has helped this new manager tremendously! I’m glad I found this so that I start my career with good habits! Your work is very much appreciated!

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Time to up the seriousness of the conversation, it sounds like! “We’ve discussed this in the past but it’s continuing. What’s going on and how can we fix this?”

  30. ism

    This might be helpful. I’ve already written out some version of what I want to say when I have to face the guys I reported for sexual harassment again. The filename is “not an apology.doc” because i know if i don’t keep that very important message in mind, i’ll end up apologizing to these men for filing a report, which is NOT my message.

  31. Sarah in Boston

    I highly recommend Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s “Thanks for the Feedback”. Although it’s geared on how to receive feedback, clearly you can turn that around for giving it as well. I saw her speak on this topic at the Mass Conference for Women and it was the best (non-keynote) session of the day (literally – it was voted most popular session).

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