by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
When conveying bad news to employees, such as negative information about their performance or behavior, leaders must avoid situations that, in effect, ambush their employees. Leaders should instead utilize their best tools and strategies to convey such information firmness and finesse. Then, leaders must afford patience, understanding, and time, along with a good measure of grace, to support employees through the challenging and often arduous process of change.
Do you provide such opportunities for employees when addressing performance or conduct concerns, or do you expect something more immediate and automatic? Change a lightbulb and we get light. Change a battery and the toy works again. People aren’t toys or light fixtures, so let’s not treat them that way. Rather, our supportive behaviors, as exhibited through patience, understanding, and time, will have a more lasting impact on employees as we restore them as viable, productive team members.
I learned this lesson through my work in mediating workplace disputes. Mediation is often the first time that individuals are fully confronted with and have had the chance to fully understand concerns about their actions and behaviors as expressed by the other party. A natural resistance occurs in such situations and is often accompanied by an unwillingness to acknowledge or deal with this negative information — at least in the immediate context of the mediation. Such mediations do not always end positively. However, after some time (a week, a month, perhaps longer) out of the scrutiny of the mediation setting, individuals gradually come around to understand how their actions and behaviors are problematic.
Such mediations are not failures just because the natural resistance to negative information could not be overcome in the short time period afforded by mediation. Similarly, when confronting employees with difficult messages about their performance or conduct, we should not expect a meaningful response without giving time for reflection outside of the scrutiny of our initial attempts to address concerns. When delivering bad news, give employees:
Patience. Does the employee frustrate you? Perhaps you’ve tried to help the individual address performance issues, but problems persist. Perhaps you’ve tolerated behaviors that are quirky, off-putting, or simply out of step with expectations for good citizenship, but now realize these are the norm for the individual, not an exception, and require correction. Or perhaps more gentle approaches to address concerns aren’t sending the right message and a more firm, consequential message is warranted. Whatever your frustration, manage your emotions when confronting the employee and prepare yourself to be patient and non-reactive if and when the employee responds with resistance, negativity, or more explosive emotions.
As you communicate concerns, and afterwards as you help the individual address the performance issue or behavior, patiently reason with the individual when responding to any resistance and objections and be prepared to objectively demonstrate how and why you have the concerns you have. Don’t let attacks or accusations serve as excuses for negative reactions on your part. Make clear that the expected change involves a process, not a magical cure, and that you are committed to helping the employee along the way. Then, maintain this commitment and necessary patience through the hills and valleys that lie ahead until the desired goal is achieved.
Understanding. Underlying the employee’s resistance may be feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, and fear, to list a few common emotions. Even the most even-keeled, thoughtful, supportive message can create resistance simply because it presents a potential threat to the employee’s security, self-image, sense of worth, or another aspect of ego. Whether the employee is able to remain calm or becomes emotional and inarticulate, make every attempt to listen and understand where his or her uncertainties and fears lie. You may not always find their explanations credible, but don’t dismiss them. Instead, demonstrate empathy, communicating your appreciation for sharing concerns and how they are understandable given the difficult circumstances.
Maintain openness throughout the employee’s reflective process and attempts to correct performance or behavior. Invite the employee to always share concerns about your expectations so that you can address misunderstandings, alleviate fears, or simply acknowledge how the change is difficult. The more you can create this openness the more the employee can feel safe to express concerns beyond resistance and argument and move to identifying and implementing concrete solutions.
Time. A common practice is to set a specific date by which change must occur, such as through a performance improvement plan or as part of disciplinary action before matters escalate to the next level of discipline. While that may be necessary in some circumstances, it can also seem arbitrary. If an employee continues to resist and fails to move to more proactive responses, no amount of time will improve matters. When an employee demonstrates improvement, but not in the timeframe you hoped, your arbitrary deadline can seem deflating as though the employee’s legitimate efforts don’t matter.
Time expectations are understandable, but temper this with what you observe as the employee responds to concerns. Communicate upfront that it may take time to reach the goals you have discussed, and affirm your commitment to give time as needed. Then, as the employee takes time to reflect and then implement expected changes, affirm the positive changes made, reinforce the importance of continuing these efforts, and monitor progress to match realistic timeframes rather than arbitrary ones laid out in a document.
Grace. Perhaps “grace” is not a word we hear or dare speak in the workplace. Put another way, it is simply a call to remember that we are human. When were you afforded grace during a difficult time or challenge when you weren’t meeting expectations? What are the human struggles your employee faces that call for grace? Affording patience, understanding, and time for employees to reflect on and respond to change in expectations is the grace they need that has no equivalent in toys and light fixtures.