Lowering the Boom

Deliver a harsh message with aplomb

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in HR Management,Human Resources

You’re displeased with an employee’s performance, and it’s time to say so. You want to describe in blunt terms how the individual needs to improve. But you’re uncomfortable having to level serious criticism.

Diplomacy counts, but so does clarity. If you’re too nervous to speak the truth, you may make matters worse by backing down at the last minute or sugarcoating your concern. Or you may resort to ambiguity and vague hints rather than detailing the behavior that needs to change.

Here’s how to lower the boom without causing damage:

Identify the problem. Prepare by homing in on precisely what you want your employee to fix. For example: “I need you to tighten your analysis by focusing on these three aspects of our monthly revenue report.”

Don’t exaggerate. Telling a staffer that her sloppy work threatens to ruin her career only breeds ill will. Rather than magnifying the situation, isolate the actual behavior that’s unacceptable and explain dispassionately how to improve.

Control your nerves. Many supervisors tell us that they dread discussing an employee’s serious failings. Jittery managers may stutter, look away or skirt what’s wrong and what the worker must do to shape up. If this task agitates you, rehearse with a friend. Concentrate on your word choice and tone. Speak concisely, avoid extraneous remarks and communicate in a natural voice.

Write it down. If you’re more comfortable writing than speaking, put your message on paper. This sharpens your focus and provides a reference point later. Summarize the problem and list steps you expect your employee to take. End by expressing your confidence in the worker’s ability to improve. Have your human resources director or a trusted colleague (never a peer of the employee) review your memo for clarity and to remove traces of bitterness. Give it to the employee a few minutes before you talk.

Apply “sandwich empathy.” Before you lower the boom, anticipate the feelings your employee may experience. Faced with harsh criticism, many workers feel angry, confused, indignant, frustrated, unhappy and even surprised.

Begin and end the discussion by empathizing with the individual. Start with, “You may find what I’m about to say frustrating, and I understand.” Conclude with, “I can understand how frustrating this must be.”

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