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

I’m on vacation today. This was originally published in 2015.

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 your column 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.

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. Ellena*

    Alison as usual nailed it. Very helpful advise also to me who is not a manager but has the same problem in general work communication.

  2. Blonde Spiders*

    I’m re-watching Parks and Recreation lately, and this reminds me of the time when Chris broke up with Ann but she had no idea, because his words and body language conveyed the opposite.

  3. First Time Manager*

    I would really like an example script to start. I tried to be direct and my report said I was being so harsh it was unprofessional and they filed a complaint.

    1. Cedarthea*

      It’s hard to have a script as it can be so difficult to tailor to each situation. However, some core ways to make it work better is thinking about the framework of “What, So What, Now What” and keeping it focused on facts and your experience/expectations (I statements) .

      This means if the person has been late repeatedly,
      What: Employee, I am seeing that you are repeatedly late to work.
      So What: Being on time is an expectation of the role as we have clients who need you to unlock the door/answer the phone/etc. At this time you are unable to perform that function in a meaningful way and this requires a conversation.
      Now What: I need to you to arrive on time, so what I can do to make that happen. (this is where it can).

      Don’t get bogged down in recriminations or blame, but the clear facts. They need to leave the conversation with an understanding of what they are doing that is not meeting your expectations, why that matters, and what needs to happen.

      The line between clear and harsh can be tough to see when you (and the employee) might be upset or have very different communication styles. However, even in clearness you need to have compassion and make room for the employee to sort through their feelings without twisting the knife.

      1. New Manager Too*

        I like that framework! I’ve also found that it helps to have “go-to” phrases that help me start sentences in a direct way – many of which I’ve taken from this blog. Here are some of mine – I’d love to hear others.
        -I need you to…
        -I got the sense that you…
        -What I really need is…
        -In the future, can you…
        -What I need is X. Can you commit to that?
        -If X happens, we would of course do Y. But otherwise, we need to…

        1. Cedarthea*

          The What, So What, Now What is great for processing information. I encountered it as a debriefing tool through Experiential Education, and find it is a good starting point for me when approaching an issue. There are fancier ones, however, I find that when I am doing the work, I always seem to go back to my core system and for me it is “What, So What, Now What”

          1. Artemesia*

            I have used this for years in experiential education as well especially in helping students and interns go beyond just describing their experience — so what has them explore how what they are learning is enlightened by their experience and now what can involve further study or action. For use in management, it keeps the focus on what the organization needs rather on the employees failings — here ie where we need to go as concretely as possible leaves an employee with a way forward not just with self loathing.

      2. Chili pepper Attitude*

        I think an important addition to that script is to ask the employee what they think is going on.
        Boss: I notice that you are repeatedly late to work. Can you tell me about that?
        Employee: oh, sure, I take the bus and it is sometimes late.
        Boss: It helps to know that AND being on time is essential to your role for reasons. Can you adjust so you can be on time? It’s serious enough that the next steps would be …

        And carry on with the script.

        At oldjob they never asked and it was a huge source of miscommunication and unhappiness. And in one case, a new employee was late several times in a month bc our boss told her “life happens,” we understand about occasionally being late. But our employer is very very particular about not being even one minute late and not more than a couple of times a year. Boss’s definition of occasional and new employee’s definition were wildly and understandably, different!!

        1. Public Sector Manager*

          Definitely do this! Asking what’s going on with them first will give you a lot of information. I had this same conversation with a former employee. When I asked what was going on, they said that their granddaughter (their first) and their daughter (their oldest) were being abused by their partner and they were helping sort out the restraining orders. That made my second question very easy in a tough situation: “How much time do you need off work to help protect your family?”

          If I had started in with why it was important to be on time to work, I would have had a very angry employee who had a tone deaf manager.

          Asking what’s going on is the single best question you can ask.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Take aa look through the “being the boss” category here — scripts will vary based on the situation but lots of letters in that category have them. Here are some examples:

      Also, the podcast episode on tone as a manager might help:

      1. First Time Manager*

        Why, how did you know that I was talking about Bob, who hasn’t even been doing his current job well for the last 10 years? Federal service, and so one just can’t fire him. He produces reports that, in answer to questions, are “yes” and “no” while leaving the comment sections blank. We beg him to use critical thinking. (He has none.) He makes the same mistakes repeatedly. We’ve had at least 4 people in the department leave over him, because they were picking up his slack.

        1. Jonquil*

          Haha, I am also in government and my first thought when I saw your post was that some entrenched problem staff (which is definitely a thing in the public sector) know the system inside and out and have been exploiting managers for longer than you’ve been in the workforce. Be consistent and calm, ensure you know your HR policies (talk to an HR rep for clarity and support) and document everything.

          1. Jonquil*

            i.e. he’s not filing a complaint because he was offended, he’s filing a compliant because he knows it will buy him x weeks while it is resolved through proper channels.

            1. bamcheeks*

              I get how annoying this is, but also I’m frustrated with managers who do give up or think that it’s too hard to manage someone because there’s a drawn-out PIP process or because they put in a complaint and things have to stop whilst that’s investigated, the union gets involved etc. I mean, at the most you’re talking about three-six months of concentrated effort and documentation, versus a drain on the rest of the team which can go on for years. I come from a culture where there is (rightly, IMO!) a high bar to depriving someone of their income, but that doesn’t mean that managers shouldn’t meet it when it needs to be done.

        2. Candi*

          You might want to look for Katie the Fed’s comments on the site. They’ve been in a government management position for some time, and they’ve also had to deal with someone no one ever disciplined until they came along.

    3. BRR*

      Many (most?) of Alison’s answers have scripts that can hopefully serve as examples. While not knowing the wording and delivery, I would also keep in mind that a lot of people treat any directness as being rude. My last employer was like this so much you couldn’t even ask someone something as part of their job without prefacing it with a “I know you’re really busy but would it be possible to x?”

      1. LizM*

        “I would also keep in mind that a lot of people treat any directness as being rude.”

        This has been my experience as well, especially when they are getting negative feedback. I’ve gotten union grievances for being too aggressive too, but fortunately had HR in the room when I was giving feedback, and their feedback was that I was totally professional and this person just became incredibly defensive when he was called on his own inappropriate behavior.

        1. Lacey*

          Yes. I’m not a manager, but I work with a bunch of different departments and it often happens that I need to let them know they’ve submitted a request incorrectly or that what they’ve requested won’t work. It should be a perfectly simple interaction, but people are so defensive about it that I spend a lot of time carefully crafting emails so they can’t take offensive, but will also understand the problem.

        2. just fix it*

          I mean no disrespect here, but it might be helpful to consider:
          * HR is there to protect the employer and managers. Ideally, they should be risk managers who balance the needs of both bosses and workers, but they often don’t.
          * Unions are there to protect workers who do not have the power of employers and managers.
          * Capitalism means that people who lose their job for any reason can end up homeless, starving and destitute.

          Kind, balanced, empathetic and clear feedback is much more helpful than a barrage of negative feedback, especially if it could be seen as trivial or unfair (as other workers are also doing the same things, but don’t seem to be suffering any consequences). It is essential for productivity and cohesion that workers feel psychological safe at work.

          If you’ve had more than one complaint for being aggressive or otherwise overly negative, you may want to examine the issue objectively, as in most places, most workers are not brave enough to raise these complaints even when an extremely serious issue is present. Sure, this is a process that can be abused, but it is pretty rare outside a few particular contexts. (Apologies if you are working within one of those contexts.)

          1. LizM*

            No, this is helpful to consider.

            I have done a lot of soul searching about this situation, and the handful of complaints I got all came out of the same dysfunctional group. Not to go into too many details, but the ringleader was a gaslighting narcissist, and I have no doubt he was abusing the system, and didn’t like being called out by a woman who could see through that.

            1. SamYam*

              I am sorry you went through that. You have dealt with a reversal on the most common abuse of the process, but it sounds like an abuse of it nonetheless. Which is terrible.

              If it helps at all, the only manager I have ever made a complaint about was so toxic she drove me to take stress leave, and I made the complaint because literally nothing else worked. I was terrified the entire time that I would lose my job but there was no other choice.

              So the fact that there is any worker out there who’s abuse this process absolutely infuriates me.

          2. tamarack & fireweed*

            There is a whole range of situations in which an employee who receives direct feedback about a behavior that needs to change might counter by filing a complaint.

            The case of the employee who coasts without doing their work and is trying to play for time in what they believe to be a relatively protected employee situation (highly formalized and slow-moving public service, strong unions, blackmail / nepotism) is overall very rare, but unpleasant enough to deal with, and

            1. SamYam*

              They are an extremely small minority of employees. Most employees make complaints only as an absolute last resort out of sheer desperation because literally nothing else has worked.

    4. LizM*

      I try to keep things very fact based, and give the employee a chance to share information with me. I try to involve them in any problem solving so they can take ownership of the solution.

      So with the example of an employee who is consistently late.

      Observation: I noticed that you’ve been late several time the last few weeks.
      Invite information: Can you tell me what’s going on?
      Listen, and reflect back: I hear that you’ve been having trouble getting hear at 8 because your kid’s school doesn’t allow drop off before 7:30, and it’s a 30 min drive, so if you hit any traffic, you’ll be late.
      Share business needs: It’s important that you’re here by 8, as a core duty of your job is to staff the front desk during business hours, and our clients expect to be able to reach someone when we open at 8. Getting here at 8:15 or later doesn’t meet that need.
      Invite problem solving: Can you think of a solution here?

      Discuss potential solutions, agree to a solution: Okay, I hear that you’re going to explore some carpooling options that will help you leave your house a little earlier. I understand that may take a couple weeks. Let’s plan to touch base in 3 weeks to see how it’s going.

      (If this had been the second or third time I was having this conversation, I would probably add): I just need you to understand that this is a core duty of your job. I understand that you are working on it, but if this continues to be an issue past the two weeks you say you need, we may need to reevaluate whether this role is the right one for you. At the end of the two weeks, if it were still an issue, we’d move to a written plan with formal benchmarks).

      1. LizM*

        I should add that I hesitated with this example, because I usually don’t get too far into the weeds with my employees’ morning routine, and if they didn’t want to go there, I wouldn’t. But I’ve found that being empathetic to what employees have going on outside the office that’s impacting their work can sometimes help get to the root of the issue. I would never suggest changes to their morning routine, but may let them think out loud as part of the conversation if they raise it as the reason they’re consistently late.

        1. just fix it*

          Do you actually really need people there bang on the dot at 8am for a business function need (eg: phone coverage), or is this merely a preference?

          1. LizM*

            This is just an example, but yes, there are positions in my office where punctuality is a business need. We have a public facing desk that opens at 8, and will often have members of the public there at 8 so they can take care of their business before they have to go to work. A 15 minute delay may mean that they either have to come back a different day or they themselves are late to work.

    5. ecnaseener*

      All of the above advice / scripts are great, I would say also pay attention to tone — the same direct sentence in a gentle, collaborative tone vs an irritated tone can be wildly different. (And if you’re uncomfortable, that tension can easily come across as irritated.)

      1. Ellen Ripley*

        Absolutely! Using an exasperated or tense tone, or speaking loudly, can come across more harsh. I also found that someone repeating the same statement about my mistake several times can feel rude and not helpful on the receiving end (I know it needs to be said, but just once is fine! I got it!).

      2. bamcheeks*

        It’s also important to be genuine in your requests for more information, and to fully listen and reflect back what you’re hearing. “Do you HAVE to take personal calls during the working day?!” is an expression of frustration, not a question. “Do you have to take calls during the working day?” followed by an opportunity for them to speak and follow-up questions is an invitation to someone to share a genuine need.

    6. Nanani*

      Some people are never going to take tough messages well, and sometimes demographics can matter way more than they should. If they imagine that for demographic reasons you should always be soft and accommodating, they might well complain at the slightest remind that you are the boss.

      My point is a one-off bad reaction doesn’t mean it’s you that’s the problem. A pattern might, but don’t let the one-offs trip you up.

      1. Artemesia*

        Because I was the highest ranking women in our department I got tasked with the difficult conversations related to dress, hygiene etc with women subordinates — such fun. I usually prefaced the conversation with a discussion of how difficult this kind of conversation is but also how common it is — after that intro, people were sometimes pleased that it was just their clothes and not something more likely to lead to firing.

        If you can ‘soften’ a hard message especially one that is about something that might lead to dismissal with a focus on commitment to them succeeding on the job — so a very clear concrete description of what needs to be different and linking that to confidence that they can do it. It is hard. And as noted demographics make it harder. Older men particularly don’t want to hear it from younger women and across racial and ethnic boundaries it can be difficult. And thus all the more reason to have a pragmatic frame and focus on very concrete changes needed. And this allows you to be confidence and not backed down with threats of race, gender or age complaints. Hard to argue those when the issue is showing up on time, completely x number of tickets on average, completing the TPS reports without error, selling $X, and other clear behaviors.

      2. LilPinkSock*

        Can you clarify what you mean about the expectation to be soft and accommodating based on demographics?

        1. londonedit*

          A lot of people (men and women) are socialised to believe that women should be kind, soft and accommodating – think about how women are described as ‘bossy’ or ‘loud’ or ‘difficult’ if they raise their voices or speak up. So if you’re a woman, and you’re trying to have a conversation where you need to be firm and clear with someone you manage, you might come up against an added layer of ‘Hey! You’re a woman, you’re not meant to speak to me like that! You’re meant to be kind and nice to everyone!’ unconscious (or perhaps conscious) bias. It can be more difficult to get your message across without people accusing you of being ‘harsh’ or ‘aggressive’ or whatever.

        2. BubbleTea*

          Not the person you are replying to, but as a youngish, short statured woman with a baby face and a gentle voice, people definitely assume I’ll be soft and accommodating.

        3. Critical Rolls*

          It’s not a secret that women can be read as much more “aggressive” for levels of directness that are accepted from men.

    7. just fix it*

      I find a good rule of thumb is to think to myself, “how would I like this information to be communicated to me?” I then rehearse it, in front of the mirror, so I can see what subconscious messages my facial expression may be putting across.

    8. Lab Boss*

      Agree with other commenters that it’s going to vary a lot by individuals. One thing I’ve learned that helps be direct but not seem aggressive, is to acknowledge that the employee actually did follow a logical thought process (if that applies). People want to be perceived as basically intelligent and competent- in my experience, someone reacting badly to feedback is often because they’re not hearing “You did this wrong and should do it like this,” they’re hearing “You’re dumb and didn’t act rationally.”

      Assuming I can say it honestly, my feedback seems to be much more readily accepted when I can acknowledge their thought process. “You didn’t order enough supplies” versus “Oh, I see, you looked at the 2018 report and based your supply calculations on that. Good idea to check existing documentation, but you need to look at this project update list to make sure you’re not using obsolete documents.” This can be done to suit even pretty major issues- you don’t have to say “It’s OK,” just “I understand what you were thinking when you did it.” By acknowledging that your employee didn’t just recklessly or maliciously do the wrong thing on purpose, you let them save a little pride and help defuse defensiveness.

    1. Chili pepper Attitude*

      Thanks! I just borrowed the audiobook from my library. FYI for anyone looking for it, I noticed there is a new edition with more examples.

  4. PT*

    The reason you’re having trouble with this, is a lot of workplaces claim to support direct communication but they actively discourage it by punishing managers who engage in it. You’re likely getting mixed signals from your supervisor regarding this skill.

    When you say, “Fergus, if you have scheduled a llama grooming appointment at 3 pm, you need to be here and set up and ready to start grooming the llama at 3 pm, not walking in the door at 3 pm,” which is direct, you get blowback from your boss. So instead you get advised to say “Fergus! It would be great if you could get here 15 minutes earlier, thank you so much for your help!” Now your boss is happy but Fergus is confused.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      This is an excellent point. There often is a fine line between being seen as direct or as harsh, and that line depends a lot on the specific work culture you’re operating in. And the willingness of more senior people to back you up. So in these cases, probably a good ideal to loop in your own manager about what’s going on with the employee and the plan for handling it.

    2. Double A*

      I think you can deliver the same message just as clearly but a bit more kindly. The first time you address it, you can start with, “Fergus, I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding and I want to make sure you’re clear on this expectation. When you set a grooming appointment for 3:00, you need to be ready to start the appointment at 3:00, so you should arrive at 2:45. Is that something you can do moving forward?”

      Depending on the issue and how much coaching it might need, I’d also suggested scheduling a follow up to check in how it’s going. The lateness issue isn’t really in this realm, but say there’s a report they’ve been making a lot of errors on. Schedule a follow up a couple of days before it’s due to review it together and discuss any issues that came up. If you’re still noticing errors at that point, you can dig in more at that point.

      1. Parakeet*

        This. Direct communication vs gently-worded communication is frequently a false dichotomy. I’m someone who for various reasons appreciates when people are both – the directness gets the actual message across, the gently-worded part is reassuring that someone isn’t furious with or contemptuous of me, since they made the softening effort.

      2. cookie monster*

        I love this wording, it avoids being confusing (what the heck does “it would be great” mean? is it required? a preference?) but still assumes good intent and makes it a warm working relationship.

    3. Daffodilly*

      Yes! X1000 especially if you’re a woman. Was told once that giving direct feedback to someone was “Not what they expected of me” when they asked me to deal with some issues, and was “not feminine”
      Yes, really. I think I was supposed to somehow feminine the warehouse guys into better behavior without directly telling them what they needed to cut out?

    4. SereneScientist*

      And, though it may not apply here, cross cultural differences make this tricky too! Every culture has a slightly different perspective on how feedback should be given. Things like seniority, age differences, gender differences, and industry further complicate the matter.

  5. Stitch*

    One of the hardest things I’ve found is continuing a conversation when someone cries. I’ve actually been coached on it (minor crying pause, be empathetic, but continue). But it’s so hard to react in the moment.

    Training can be really tough.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      The way I have pushed through the crying stuff is by appreciating that it’s not anger and/or violence. Tears will not hurt me but fists definitely will hurt me.

      Another tidbit that has helped is knowing that people who do not care and have no plan on caring soon, do not cry. EVER. Tears can indicate care/concern on some level.

      Crying can also indicate that a firm message has been received and understood. A crying person is going to hear a different tone in my voice than, say, an angry. belligerent person. It’s okay to match what is coming at you with your tone of voice. You can still have the same underlying message.

      I also try to stay away from the “I” word. “I need you to do X”. It makes it sound like this is some random thing that I am inflicting on the person. So this becomes, “Our department needs to arrive on time because we are the people who unlock the building and start answering the phones.”
      Or for people who cannot meet deadlines: “We have an obligation to our company to meet the deadlines set in company contracts. If the company does not meet the contract as agreed, we can cause the company to lose money. Depending on the setting, the person who failed to meet the deadline can be fired.” This is not about me being a petty tyrant or a micromanager, this is just a statement of how things work.

      I found it much easier to deliver messages when I started putting things in the context of “here is what the company needs us to do….”

      And I do have one last trick up my sleeve. This is where I scare the crap out of myself. I do not want to be That Crappy Boss who cannot tell people what they need to do to keep their jobs. The very first job I had my boss was so busy being my friend she forgot to be my boss. Imagine my surprise when she fired me. I did not see it coming. She never gave me a single clue that something was wrong with my work. That job was over and so was that friendship. And I never befriended a boss again. My nightmare is that I do a similar thing- I fail to empower people to keep and excel at their jobs. I think of much younger me, lost and bewildered and feeling unable to trust a boss and I know I cannot make my discomfort more important than an employee’s job security.

      1. Lacey*

        I don’t think it’s quite true that people who don’t care won’t cry.
        Some people discover early that they can avoid all criticism and responsibility by crying.

        Not all people. You have to have an idea who you’re dealing with, but tears can definitely be a deflection.

        1. allathian*

          Oh, yes. This happened to me on the cusp of puberty. I was a crybaby, and always had been. Sometimes it got me what I wanted, but not always, but often enough that it worked as a strategy for me to get what I wanted. It didn’t work on my parents, though, it has to be said.

          Anyway, when we moved to the UK, I was just about to hit puberty in earnest at 12, and also experienced culture shock for the first time. In the UK, pretty young kids are expected to keep a stiff upper lip and not to cry, unless they’re severely hurt. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, but I used crying to get what I wanted, and it worked surprisingly well because the adults around me weren’t used to that, and neither were my classmates. Especially the latter would bend over backwards just to get me to stop crying.

          When we returned home, I stopped crying pretty quickly, because I only got ridiculed for doing it, rather than what I wanted. That’s just as well, and now I definitely don’t use crying to avoid criticism and responsibility… I have cried at work, but that happened when I was on the brink of burnout and completely exhausted.

    2. Artemesia*

      It helps to acknowledge it and empathize; lots of people cry in these situations. Then ask if they need to take a break and come back in half an hour? Or if they wish to continue. Try to help them feel less embarrassed by what is hard for some people to control. But don’t let it back you down.

  6. Double A*

    I think an additional approach is to assume the problem is coming from a place of ignorance or misunderstanding, rather than maliciousness or incompetence. We have a norm in our workplace to “Assume goodwill,” which I find is useful if your first instinct is to assume the worst. It also helps because you can touch back on that norm if someone seems to be assuming something about you. You could start incorporating this norm into meeting agendas (do people outside of education set team norms?)

    Alison often encourages language like this — phrasing it in a way to suggest that you’re confident once they have this information, they will of course act on it appropriately. Even if the issue stems from something less innocent, it allows the person the option to save face.

    1. Lacey*

      Yes, most of the time I find it works really well to assume that a miscommunication happened or that something else might have gone wrong and to approach it as, “This happened and shouldn’t have and I’m just trying to figure it out” – people usually respond well and sometimes it becomes clear that actually something beyond their control happened and I would have been a jerk to blame them.

      Every now and again I get someone who is offended because I clearly don’t think they know how to do their job and how dare I, but that’s not often.

    2. Artemesia*

      I habitually assume the worst BUT I always approach the person assuming good will. Because even if the behavior is careless or malicious, treating it as an honest mistake is more likely to be effective and allows the employee to save face. And a fair number of times, when I have seen something as ‘trying to get away with x’, it really was a communication issue or an honest mistake. Always START treating it as a well intentioned error that we can fix moving forward by doing x and y.

      1. Artemesia*

        I also remember a time when a boss assumed I was trying to undermine him when I honest to god was just passing along routine information I had garnered when doing his job as interim. I was totally well intentioned and he was a complete glassbowl. It taught me to hold my horses on blaming rather than assuming the best.

    3. Critical Rolls*

      This is a good way to allow face saving in any corrective action. “Little Bunny Foo-Foo, I’m sure you weren’t aware of our policy or you wouldn’t have been bopping those field mice on the head.”

  7. Scotlibrarian*

    I’m so glad you are trying to improve on this. I train people in lots of different companies on how to be an autism friendly manager (I’m autistic) and I regularly point people to AAM as this is a point we raise in the training a lot. As a manager, be clear. Most people find it hard to be managed by someone who isn’t clear and direct, but for many autistic people it can be the difference between being able to do a good job, and being forced to leave. If I have to have a tough conversation (or any important work talk), I write down my bullet points first, to make sure I know what I have to say and to check at the end to make sure I said what I meant to say. I use a kind, friendly, open tone, I ask for their input, but I make sure they leave the room knowing what their action points and timescale are. Then I follow up in writing, the same way I do for all my meetings. People see me as a friendly, approachable person, they come to me for help, or to talk things through, and clarity is part of that

  8. pcake*

    When having serious conversations with employees, be sure that feeling uncomfortable doesn’t make you sound mean or disconnected. Feel for them while telling them, and let them see that – but tell them clearly because not telling them clearly can have serious consequences.

    People can be fired if they don’t know what is expected from them, and that’s a lot worse than having heir feelings hurt. Or they can struggle very hard to meet expectations and suffer over it if they don’t know what those expectations are. It can be so stressful that they can change jobs to avoid that stress or it can make them feel incompetent, leading to depression or burnout.

  9. AndCultJam*

    As usual, Alison has great advice! I did want to include some experiences I’ve had with a manager around this issue. I apologize for the length here, but I think nuance is very important.

    The best manager I ever had was a newer manager, and initially we both struggled with tone, since she was newer to management, and this was my first industry job after graduating. I think initially it was difficult for her to provide constructive feedback, since she was sincerely one of the kindest people I’ve come across. But as Alison mentions here (and frequently in other posts!), sometimes employees don’t pick up on certain topics being serious unless they’re spelled out pretty clearly. For instance, I was told about certain executives have preferences on printing items for review, and I didn’t interpret that to mean a nastygram would be sent about me being inept if I attempted to have someone review something electronically.

    Other times, I received negative feedback that was on the other end of the spectrum. I once had an hour long performance review that started off with “You know you did very well this year, and I get letters all from across the country about how great you are to work with,” and glowing review scores. The first 5 minutes of praise was followed up with 55 minutes of small nitpicks that soured the review.

    While it certainly is a very delicate balance for the manager, I found her general approach toward management to be very refreshing and efficient. Despite the nature of the management relationship, she was open to tweaking her style to best fit managing me. I think the tone here was very important–she was confident and firm in saying this, which preserved the power dynamic, but even offering to make slight changes reassured me the employee that regardless of what was said, it was constructive, even if delivery may be off in certain situations or feedback is harsh. Establishing that mutual understanding is key.

    Here’s an example of “collaborating” on management style that helped me. I’ve seen Alison write a few times about employees getting nervous about meeting with managers and bosses and automatically assuming that meant they were in trouble. This was not simply paranoia in my old firm–since it was very, very well-regarded in the industry and was generally very competitive, it would not be uncommon for senior executives to set up meetings out of the blue with no content just to berate an employee. I asked my manager to let me know if we would be discussing feedback that was more negative than constructive–not a play by play, or the exact situation, but just a heads-up.

    There was a time where I was beginning chemotherapy and really underestimated how it would impact me. I had attended a client meeting where I seemed tired and “disheveled” (beginning to lose chunks of hair, but nothing that noticeable). The lead on the account set up a meeting to discuss feedback, and presented it like it was going to be very constructive. My manager let me know that the lead was upset, so I should be prepared for the feedback to potentially be less constructive. I was very, very grateful to be given the heads-up, because even years later that was one of the worst meetings I ever attended. Even when I told the lead what was going on, he disregarded everything I said and acted as if he was graciously providing me an elixir from the heavens, and proceeded to demean me for 90 minutes. Having a heads-up here was really crucial in putting me in a mindset to receive the feedback, constructive or otherwise.

    I have since moved on to a less toxic industry, but I am in management now myself. I have emulated a lot of the grace and collaborative mindset with my employees, and it has never steered me wrong.

  10. Ellie Rose*

    Agree that practicing is crucial. I’ve seen people flounder in workshop role-playing exercises, which means they have even less of a chance getting it right the first try with the actual people involved.

    For example, we were rehearsing a layoff conversation, where the scenario was that the person who is being let go has done nothing specifically wrong. Kind of the opposite of the LW, but they had a similar issue of deviating from what they meant to say.

    The person playing the manager started off well, being direct and clear. Then the person who was the employee being let go said, earnestly, “But…why me? Did I do something wrong?” and the manager person was like “yes, I’m sorry, we had to make some tough choices”…inadvertently saying the employee had done something wrong. The facilitator stepped in after and walked through some other ways to respond and the person playing the manager talked about how they panicked and couldn’t think how to respond.

  11. Maddie*

    Another suggestion is to limit the use of “lol” when you are the boss. My director always uses “lol” when communicating with our team on chat and it drives me crazy.

  12. Academic Librarian too*

    I hear what Alison is saying and agree yet…
    I had a situation with a report who was a union member and ended up with a year and half PIP and until the day she was fired she was “shocked, shocked!” that things were that serious.
    She shouldn’t have been but…
    For the first year of the PIP- step discipline HR wouldn’t let me use the following words in writing,
    If you do not complete your assignments by these stated deadlines that are not negotiable, you will be let go.
    If I document you lying about your work or other people , you will be fired.
    If you do not complete these assigned routine tasks (stated in your job description) when they are due, accurately, you will be fired.

    1. fhqwhgads*

      You had an HR problem here though. PIPs should so not last that long. And they literally forbade you from being direct. So it’s not a matter of not knowing how to be direct or finding it difficult, in your case it’s a matter of outside forces explicitly telling you not to do it.

    2. just fix it*

      An 18-month PIP? What?!

      I guess the big thing here is why was HR blocking you? Did they not think the issues were substantive enough, or were they just overly cautious?

      And did you actually provide this person with the very clear feedback and information that you needed them to have? Or was it unclear, contradictory, or otherwise confusing?

    3. retired2*

      Former state manager here. Yes yes yes about HR. Had to do every step multiple times. I did fire state employees but it was not considered a good thing for me to do as a manager.I once wanted to fire an employee who sold fake state identification papers to people doing criminal things. Couldn’t fire employee because I had not explicitly told the employee this was illegal before they did it.

  13. just fix it*

    In my own experience as both a manager and a staff member, managers who are cautious in providing negative feedback and consequences (especially if we’re not talking about a mistake or problem with absolutely terrible consequences, like medical negligence during surgery) is far superior than one who disproportionately overreacts to something minor, and is then either too proud or too daft to fix the damage they’ve caused.

  14. Mereand23*

    Another thing I have found helpful with difficult conversations is to validate for understanding at the end. Make the person who you spoke with recap their takeaway from the conversation so you get acknowledgment that they fully understand what they are being asked and why and what the consequences will be.

    1. just fix it*


      And for goodness sake, managers, make sure your feedback is both consistent and makes actual sense! Also, do not be condescending, don’t nitpick, and don’t give people nothing but negative feedback (or basically nothing but negative feedback).

  15. 1,000 Snails in a Lady Skin*

    I recommend the book Radical Candor which also has some useful advice around this issue!

  16. Angstrom*

    My single worst work experience was being completely blindsided by a negative annual review. The manger said “I haven’t been happy with your work for the last 6 months.” What? Why didn’t you say something 5 1/2 months ago?
    I later found that this wasn’t the first time he’d done something like that. He was “conflict-averse”.
    Please, please don’t do that to your people.

  17. Uncle Boner*

    The key to keeping a message “hard”: KEEP IT SHORT.

    Consider: “You’re late. Please be on time in the future.”
    versus: “I know a lot of things can come up and there are emergencies that can impact your ability to be here on time, but it’s really important to our BigBoss that people show up on time and so, unless there’s an emergency please be here on time, unless you can’t – then call me and let me know. Thanks!!!”

    Yes, the first is cold. And yes, there’s no “buy in” or whatever soft mushy HR bull you’re expected to include…but…it gets the point across clearly.

    Want to be at a level of in-between softness, add SOME words. Bosses don’t always have to empathize with employees.

  18. Calamity Jane*

    I’m so thankful for the OP’s question – it is worded perfectly and with enviable clarity.

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