Confrontations with staff are part of being a manager, says Winston Fletcher. But handling unpleasant tasks with humanity and dexterity makes them that much easier.
'Oh, don't the days seem lank and long,
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong.
And isn't your life extremely flat,
With nothing whatever to grumble at.'
So say Gilbert and Sullivan in Ruddigore - but I think they're talking twaddle. If all went right and nothing went wrong I'd live with it. An extremely flat life can't be that bad.
Yet most managers, me included, never get a chance to put it to the test: things never stop going wrong. The things that go wrong most often are other people. And the next thing that goes wrong is how to deal with the people who have gone wrong. Business novels and television series imply that we managers enjoy nothing better than screaming at our subordinates and bawling out our suppliers, that we are all power-crazed bruisers who love looking for punch-ups. The truth is completely the opposite. Most managers hate confrontations and are unsure of how to handle them when they need to.
Have facts at your fingertips
In consequence, unpleasant situations become, like going to the dentist, something to be postponed indefinitely. Most of us put off warning people, reprimanding people, firing people, far longer than we should. We invent rationalisations we know to be unreal. We wait to be chivied into tackling unpleasant tasks by our bosses. If you never have to be chivied, you'll score lots of career Brownie points.
Before undertaking such tasks, however, the first essential, too often neglected, is to brief yourself thoroughly. Almost always the person to be reprimanded will refute your criticism and may well have thought more, and know more, about it all than you. Have specific details, not generalities, at your fingertips.
Never say: 'You are often back late from lunch.' Say instead: 'You have been more than half an hour late back from lunch seven times in the last three weeks.' If you rely on generalities, your case will be weakened, perhaps totally undermined, and the dispute will degenerate into petulancy - nil career Brownie points.
Once briefed, you must define the objectives of the confrontation. Generally - unless it is a termination interview - you will not want to demotivate the person. On the contrary, you will usually be seeking to remotivate them. You will be keen that he or she accepts what you have to say but does not go away utterly downcast or disheartened. This is exceedingly difficult to achieve but the following are some of the ways in which psychologists' studies have shown it can be done.
Avoid getting personal
Be at pains to be fair. Try to keep some extra arrows in your quiver.
Let it be known you could easily be more critical but have no wish to be too harsh.
Criticise actions, not people. Avoid undermining people's confidence and enthusiasm. Itemise habits and actions they can change, not personality traits they probably can not.
Control your non-verbal communication. During reprimands and confrontations, when people are looking for tiny glimmers of reassurance, non-verbal communications can often say more than words. Without minimising the seriousness of the situation, smile as often as possible.
Start with a simple statement. Nerves can make even the most articulate waffle on such occasions, with disastrous results. When you open your mouth to censure someone, make sure you don't put your own foot in it.
Don't rush. It is especially important for those being criticised to feel they have been given a fair hearing and not the bum's rush. People under fire must be given ample time to defend themselves.
Seek agreement. Without bullying, try hard to get the person to state his or her agreement to what you have been saying. People unwilling to agree in your presence will most likely be harbouring resentments, which will later burgeon like tropical plants in a hothouse.
Summarise conclusions. As such meetings are often emotional, it is crucial to summarise what has been agreed, and what is going to happen, and preferably to confirm it afterwards in writing. Make sure the written version is sympathetic, however. Memos and e-mails can easily sound brutal to bruised and tender recipients.
Finally, when the unhappy event is over, do as Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson recommend in their famous best-seller, The One Minute Manager: stand up and make fleeting but encouraging physical contact.
Giving their shoulder a quick squeeze is best. It will work wonders with someone who has just been battered about a bit.
Of course, some of the above are unnecessary, indeed irrelevant, if the other person is being fired. (You can hardly hope for someone being fired to go away thinking you are a wonderful guy.) If the person is being fired, there are two additional points to keep in mind.
Handling staff with humanity
However much they have been expecting it, being fired always comes as a surprise. Human beings have an extraordinary capacity to carry contradictory thoughts in their minds. Even though they know being fired is on the cards, they will not want to imagine it happening.
After they have left, they will be embittered. No matter how reasonable their initial reaction, they will soon, understandably, build up a welter of resentment and possibly consult their lawyers. So be extremely cautious not to say anything that might be used in evidence against either you or your organisation in a court of law.
If you learn to handle unpleasant tasks with humanity and dexterity, you will get round to them much more quickly - and without anyone chivying you. And though your life will still be far from flat, you'll be better at handling the bumps.
Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University.