Chapter 11: Defusing Frustrating Situations with Gentle Corrections
Let me tell you a story.
Bob the Coder is a great guy. He shows up on time, turns in quality work, and is reliably positive and easy to work with. You’re very glad he’s on your team.
But there’s a problem.
You like your employees to turn in a weekly report summarizing their work at 4 p.m. each Friday. Yes, it’s kind of a fussy detail, but it really helps you chart progress and a course for the coming week.
Bob, however, does not see the value in this exercise.
Every week, you notice his report missing from stack that you review each week.
When you remind him, he quickly fills it out and turns it in, but it always requires that extra effort on your part, and it’s getting old.
What should you do?
This is a tough–and incredibly common–situation. Bob’s a solid worker, and this report isn’t a do-or-die issue. But it’s really bugging you–and you’re tired of having to remind him.
How do you get a better outcome without having to nag or overreact in order to get his attention?
Common Communication Mistakes
Let’s take a look at some issues that probably created this uncomfortable situation. It’s true that you aren’t the one forgetting the report each week, but you probably have some fears or communication habits that are getting in the way of a positive resolution.
Don’t ignore the problem
The absolute best time to address a problem like this one is to catch it the first or second time it happens.
This doesn’t mean you have to patrol your employees like a Border Collie or overreact to every little infraction. In fact, I recommend frequent, direct, 30-second conversations with your employees to show them that you’re paying attention and that you’re serious.
Often, new owner-managers are afraid of coming off as heavy handed, so it’s easy to underplay small issues. If they do address an issue like our weekly report example, they usually say something like,”Hey, Bob. I know this report isn’t a #1 priority, but it really helps. No big deal, though! Thanks.”
The manager thinks they’ve been friendly and clear, but they’ve actually given the impression that it really is no big deal, so Bob doesn’t change anything.
If you don’t communicate that you know this is an important detail for Bob to address, even if you think the rule is unnecessary, he’ll continue to ignore it–and you. Then other employees who had been complying often start ignoring rules they find inconvenient, and soon you’ve got a mini-revolt on your hands.
Don’t make the problem bigger than it is
If the problem has been festering, your resentment probably has been, too. Don’t blow off steam with a laundry list of problems from the past to intimidate Bob or justify the discussion.
If you start hearing yourself using the words “always” or “never”, that’s a big clue that you’re blowing this out of proportion, as in, “You always do this,” or “You never do that.”
Keep things on an even keel and you’ll increase the chances for a productive resolution.
Don’t assume that Bob should magically “get it”
It would be great to hop into a car and have it automatically bring us to our destination–and parallel park–without any input from the driver, but that’s not the way things work, at least not until driverless cars are a reality.
If you want your team to understand your company’s priorities, you’ve got to be willing to put your hands on the steering wheel and provide direction, speed, and attention.
Talking to your team specifically about the essential pillars of company culture, what they’re doing wrong, and what they’re doing right will give them the kind of support that helps inform their future behavior.
The big payoff for this clear, ongoing communication is that you’re investing in their knowledge, which will make your job exponentially easier down the road.
Starting Over: Effective communication for collaborative outcomes
Hit the reset button
Even if you have a situation similar to the Bob example, one that has been simmering for months, you can still make a course correction that will get your employee’s attention and reestablish your authority in a positive, gentle way.
Gentle Correction Template
1. Have this discussion out in the open.
Annual reviews need to take place in private, but this kind of redirection needs to be at Bob’s desk or in a common area.
Keeping this communication public lets everyone else within earshot hear that this is a significant issue that applies to everyone. And when the team members see a coworker have this type of discussion with you, they’ll get the idea that it happens to everyone, which takes away the apprehension of having you stop at their desk to chat.
2. Give Bob the benefit of the doubt.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stewed in resentment over an infraction, only to discover later that the employee had a good reason for the mistake. Being dedicated to frequent, low-intensity conversations about work performance allowed me to approach an employee and get the real story without stirring up a lot of drama.
3. Ask an open-ended question instead of making a demand.
In these uncomfortable situations, it’s very easy to make a statement about the behavior you’d like and walk away. You may think the matter is settled when your statement was actually misunderstood or forgotten in the cloud of details that most of us have running in our heads.
When you ask a question, you immediately have an employee’s attention, and they can’t just smile, nod and return to their work.
Here’s a very simple, helpful script that I often use in these situations.
“Hey, Bob. It’s 5:30, and I was surprised to see that your report isn’t on my desk with the rest of the team’s paperwork. What happened?
This phrasing lets you know you think highly of Bob (I’m surprised you didn’t do what was expected) and you’re assuming that he has a reasonable explanation (What happened?). This script sets both of you up for the best possible outcome.
Often, you’ll hear that they had a dentist appointment or a meeting that kept them from doing the right thing, or some other perfectly reasonable explanation. In those cases, just can deal with the exception, and in Bob’s case, ask him to get his report turned in ASAP.
If this is an ongoing problem, you might hear hear something unexpected that helps you develop a solution.
5. Don’t settle for a contrite reply.
In order to get out of this discussion quickly, Bob might say, “Oh, I just forgot.” If this is a chronic problem, don’t let the conversation end there. Dig deeper for the reason behind the behavior so you can get to the root of the issue.
6. Be prepared to schedule a follow-up meeting.
If this discussion opens up a larger topic, don’t hash it out right there. Set up a meeting in a few days–in private–when you can discuss the matter fully without improvising an answer on the spot.
Here’s an example. If Bob says, “I hate filling out those reports. We talk about all this at our weekly meeting. I’d rather get more coding done.” Your reply should be, “That’s a great point, Bob. Let’s talk about that more next week. I still need to you turn in your report right now, though.”
This approach keeps the meeting on topic and lets Bob (and his eavesdropping coworkers) know that this is non-negotiable. You have also clearly and gently communicated that you are the manager and he is the employee, and employees don’t just make up rules as they go along.
In the days between this conversation and the follow-up meeting, make a point of making a short list of reasons why you have this policy. Does it provide important data points for you? Does it help determine the budget for next year?
Don’t get trapped into rationalizing the policy to Bob’s satisfaction (it’s your company, after all), but do come to the follow-up meeting with this information in hand so you can give Bob some context for the rule.
7. Establish and communicate clear consequences for continued non-compliance.
If a gentle conversation with follow-up doesn’t correct the problem, request a closed-door meeting, saying, “Bob, I’ve reminded you about this issue X number of times, and now we need to have a focused conversation about it.”
Choose to Lead, Not React
Before you escalate your response, decide in advance what reasonable consequences should be. Get advice from fellow agency owners, if needed. Tell your employee in clear terms what is expected and what the discipline will be if those expectations are not met. Give specifics instead of meaningless general warnings like, “You need to come in on time or things are going to get serious.”
When I started managing my first team of programmers, I had no idea how to respond in situations like this. I made a lot of mistakes until I started discovered the value in catching these distracting, draining situations quickly.
Let me tell you that it is such a relief to have a clear process for a quick resolution when it comes to discipline issues. No one wants to be the bad guy or get an employee in trouble, but stepping into these discussions allows you to be a manager.
A process like this allows you to move past insecurity around uncomfortable conversations and become a true leader. And that paves the way for a better interactions with your team, your clients, and all of your business connections.