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Subtlety Is Overrated

Managers who sugarcoat their feedback aren’t doing their employees any favors.


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As a workplace advice columnist and someone who coaches managers, I hear from a lot of managers who are frustrated with an employee over some aspect of their work performance or behavior. They feel they’ve addressed the issue, and yet, it continues. Over the years, I’ve learned to ask these frustrated managers, “Exactly what have you said to the person about this?” More often than not, it turns out that the manager has only hinted at the problem rather than being direct about it. Often, they think they’ve addressed it, but their actual language is so soft that the person has missed the message entirely or doesn’t realize it’s a serious issue.

Here’s one manager who wrote to me after realizing she was doing exactly that:

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. … 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.

And even though giving feedback and clear direction are core parts of a manager’s job, they’re often strangely hesitant to do so, as with this manager who wrote to me seeking advice on a situation where she simply needed to stop hinting and be direct:

We recently hired someone who is in his third week on the job. He is very junior and needs a lot of training. This is not unexpected. He is, however, constantly disappearing for 10–30 minutes at a time. It’s hard to get anything done when it takes him so long to turn around very simple review comments. I’ll casually walk around the office to see if he’s simply chatting with co-workers or getting some water, but he’s nowhere. I don’t know how to address this as it’s slightly different than an employee who is always late or leaving early. I’ve made comments (via email) such as “I’m not sure where you’ve disappeared to, but stop by when you’re back.”

The reason managers do this, of course, is that they want to be kind, and they feel unkind telling someone directly that they’re doing something wrong and need to change it. It feels nicer to hint and hope the employee gets the message. And it’s true that sometimes hints do work and can help someone save face. But for managers, hints need to be a one-shot deal. If the message doesn’t land, then you’ve got to move on to a more explicit conversation. Avoiding a direct conversation because it’s uncomfortable is where the real unkindness is. You end up prioritizing your own comfort over the employee’s ability to clearly hear where they’re going wrong and what they need to change. And that means prioritizing your own comfort over the employee’s work quality and reputation, and maybe future raises, promotions, and job security.

In fact, managers tend to be particularly afraid to clearly state the one message that’s most crucial for underperforming employees to hear: “If X doesn’t change, we will need to let you go.” Because that can feel harsh to say, instead they frequently use fuzzier language like “It’s really important that you make these changes.” As a result, the employee doesn’t get the chance to understand how serious the problem is and what the consequences could be—and sometimes ends up being fired because a boss who wanted to be “kind” wasn’t clear and direct with them, as this manager recounts:

I gave a lot of constructive feedback but never went on to say, “And these kinds of careless mistakes and failure to follow through are not OK; if you don’t make these improvements, we cannot keep you in this job.” As a result, when I finally got fed up and moved to fire this employee, she was totally blindsided and I felt like I had totally screwed up.

Managers need to consider clear, direct communication to be a fundamental, non-negotiable part of the job, even when it’s awkward and even when it’s hard. There’s no way to manage effectively without getting comfortable with phrases like “I need you to change X” and “Y is a serious problem that could affect your ability to stay in your job.” Employees who aren’t meeting expectations deserve the opportunity to hear that message clearly and explicitly, so they don’t have to pick up on hints or read through layers of sugarcoating to figure out how to succeed in their jobs.

Alison Green is the creator of the work advice site Ask a Manager and the author of Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work.

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This post originally appeared on Slate and was published February 18, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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