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Choose Your Words Wisely

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

While you’re traveling, you get the thumbs-up on a major piece of business you’ve been trying to score. One final pricing document is needed to seal the deal, and you instruct your employee to send the file while you’re en route. Later, you see the file was indeed sent—but it’s the wrong version. It was an honest mistake, but a sloppy error that’s going to cost the company thousands of dollars. What do you do?

Even the best employees screw up, and while it’s your job to handle disciplinary issues, you don’t want to risk losing an otherwise valuable employee. Here are three phrases to use when disciplining a good employee: “I feel …” Starting sentences with “I feel” or “I sense” diffuses blame when addressing a disciplinary issue. Leading with “you,” on the other hand, creates an unproductive environment: The employee will stop listening to think of a defensive response, and you’ll damage the relationship and miss a key opportunity to coach. Give the employee the opportunity to accept responsibility versus scolding and pointing fingers.

“Tell me about X.”

Questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no” create a stalled exchange. Open-ended phrases such as “Tell me about X” or “What led up to X?” prompt the employee to engage and help you understand where communication broke down.

“I’m on your side.” You may be irate on the inside, but you can’t home in on the negative if you want to keep the employee as part of the team. Expressing empathy gives the employee the sense of security needed to move beyond his or her mistake. Scott Seibert, professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, says staff members who are supported by a manager tend to be more innovative and loyal; your support in good times and bad encourages a culture of empowerment, which ultimately arms you with a better team.

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