Manager or mouse: Bosses should not put off confronting problems

Managers have an obligation to "level" with their employees. They are paid to do so. Yet, all across corporate America, confronting problems has created a four-letter phenomenon: fear.

Unfortunately, managers are afraid to speak up for fear of alienating an employee, destroying morale, receiving a grievance or becoming unpopular.

Being "straight" with your employee carries with it certain responsibilities. It is not your right to say anything you please.

Responsible leveling includes both positive and negative feedback about employees' performance, goals, strengths, weaknesses, career path, what they can expect and what they can do to improve. It requires honesty, openness and a sincere desire on the part of the managers to provide the information employees need to succeed.

Failing to speak directly does the employee a disservice. It is virtually impossible for your subordinate to improve, for example, if he or she is unaware that a problem exists.

In fact, the longer you postpone the task, the more likely hostility will build toward your employee. So how do you level with your employees and encourage them to be honest with you? Here are some suggestions:

Prepare carefully. Analyze the severity and urgency of the problem. Consider the personality and needs of your employee. Collect all relevant facts and identify all possible options for a solution. Most important: Rehearse what you plan to say and how you'll say it.

Prepare to bring up only one issue and focus on a description of the problem, not your judgment or opinion about it.

Only bring up a behavior your employee can change. For example, a person can learn to break a habit like interrupting you, but probably can't control a general personality trait, such as social clumsiness or even procrastination.

Discuss. In a private area, invite your employee to sit at a comfortable distance from you. Don't sit behind your desk, or let other furniture create a barrier.

Thank the employee for coming, and make a statement about your positive intent and desire to help him succeed. For instance, "I like your ambition and desire to get ahead. I want to help you succeed in this organization. As I see it, the best way to help you is to give you honest feedback."

Spell out the agenda you want to follow. Here's a suggestion:(1) I'd like you to hear me out; (2) then I want to hear your honest reaction; (3) I'd like us both to work together for a solution; (4) This discussion will be confidential.

Say what needs to be said, mean what you say and act as if you mean it. State your perception of the problem. If you don't have quantifiable facts, use words like, "As I see it," or "It appears to me." If you have facts, use them. Once you've made your point, don't apologize for it, sugarcoat it or repeat it.

Express yourself in a way that is non-judgmental and non-demanding. For example, "I believe it's important for staff meetings to begin on time" is an "I statement" that refers directly to yourself. Don't open with, "You are always late for staff meetings" or "You wasted 10 valuable minutes of everyone's time."

Seek solutions. After you have listened carefully to your subordinate's side of the issue, ask for suggestions for solutions. Make the person responsible for his own behavior, and hold him strictly accountable for results.

Blaming others, making excuses or denial can be refocused by listening and paraphrasing. "You feel that the late report is all Charlie's fault. You are accountable for the results on this project. What are you going to do to meet your deadline?"

Close the discussion. Review what has been agreed upon. Offer your assistance if needed and appropriate. Finish the discussion with an expression of confidence in your subordinate's ability to overcome the situation.

You may want to go out of your way to bump into the person later in the day to exchange small talk and show that you bear no malice. Follow up with your employee to make sure he has followed through.

How do you encourage your employees to level with you? Tell them that you expect them to level with you so that you can make educated decisions and make their jobs more satisfying.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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