On the way up: The art of being blunt ... tactfully - If the message for a staff member or a supplier is a tough one, it is best delivered promptly, fairly and with compassion

On the way up: The art of being blunt ... tactfully - If the message for a staff member or a supplier is a tough one, it is best delivered promptly, fairly and with compassion - Novels and television plays like to portray corporate executives as ruthless,

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Novels and television plays like to portray corporate executives as ruthless, power-crazed monsters who enjoy nothing more than firing a few thousand employees before breakfast and bullying everyone they meet during the rest of the day. Few things could be further from the truth.

We all know a few brutal bastards in business. I once met a finance director who boasted to me that he had spent the previous day firing 40 people one-by-one, and had obviously delighted in doing so. But most of us are, if anything, too soft. We shrink from picking rows with people, and run a mile from people who pick rows with us. We postpone unpleasant decisions. We baulk at telling people things they don't want to hear. We prefer to be liked rather than hated - and you won't win your way into other people's hearts by being a sadistic sod.

But there are times when you've got to be tough. Put bluntly, and sad though it may seem, softies don't succeed. As the Americans say: 'Nice guys finish last.' If you haven't got the balls - whatever your gender - to tell people things they don't like, you had better quit business and get a job as a saint. (And even saints sometimes have to warn people they mustn't do things they want to do. But they do it in a saintly way. In business you usually have to be blunt.)

You may have to refuse somebody's reasonable request - to take a day off, perhaps, or to leave early to go to their kid's school concert - because the demands of the business make it impossible. You may have to fire a supplier who has given you years of loyal and efficient service but no longer meets your requirements.

You may have to reprimand somebody for being involved in a disaster you know wasn't entirely their fault. You may have to dismiss someone you like - someone with whom you have been out boozing or playing golf a thousand times, who thinks of you as a friend. Novelists and television plays make it sound brutal but, like pruning a plant, if it strengthens the organisation as a result, it has to be done.

Tough decisions almost always involve hurting people, and you should never do that lightly. You can be resolute without being nasty. Examine every possible course of action and ensure there is no satisfactory alternative; make sure you are not just flexing your muscles and exercising your power to make yourself feel macho; and make sure you are not simply taking the easiest and quickest way out.

The best test is to put yourself in the other person's shoes and ask: 'How would I feel if somebody did that to me?' If, from their perspective, you can see the decision was unavoidable then it is the right decision. But if, from their perspective, the decision appears indefensible, you should either reconsider it or explain your reasons to the person you are being tough on with great clarity.

Few of us receive any training in dealing with such awkward human situations, so we feel unsure of our ability to handle them. In consequence, we may try to procrastinate, hoping that if we do nothing the problem will go away. I used to have a joke rubber stamp which simply said: 'Time has dealt with that.' It sometimes happens but, much more often, delays make things worse. The problem comes back with a vengeance and bites your posterior with a very sharp nip. Procrastination - like avoiding going to the dentist - usually exacts a painful price.

Nowadays, most top managers - especially Americans, in my experience - recognise that many of us postpone difficult confrontations. So they see it as part of their job to nudge their staff into dealing with unpleasant tasks without delay. You will earn top bonus points at your career appraisals if you never wait to be nudged.

And, because most of us feel uncomfortable in such situations, we try to get them over as quickly as possible. That's precisely the opposite of what you should do; it will inevitably appear to the other person as though you think the matter unimportant.

So don't schedule too little time for the meeting. Be at pains to be fair. Give the other person time to put their point of view. If their argument is strong enough, never be ashamed to change your mind. But don't do so just because you feel sympathetic. It's fine to feel sympathetic, but it's insufficient reason for making the wrong decision.

You will, almost always, want to communicate your unwelcome message without demotivating the other person. You will not want them to be downcast and disheartened. You will not want them immediately to start hunting for another job (unless it was a termination interview, which is a different situation entirely).

'You've got to be cruel to be kind,' says the old cliche. But being a cliche does not make it wrong. If you were truly in the right, the other person will often benefit, in the long term. And that's another good test of whether your toughness was really necessary.

Winston Fletcher is FCB Europe's communications director.

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