At a time when people can least afford to lose their jobs, it seems as if there are more ways than ever to screw up at work. Political correctness, thin-skinned coworkers, and fear of litigation have made it difficult to be direct or candid with people without crossing some sort of line.
To make matters worse, the line’s a moving target. Words, phrases, and attitudes that were fine yesterday are taboo today. In short, the straight and narrow path of good workplace behaviour appears to be getting straighter and narrower all the time.
And yet, directness is prized in the business world. So learning to be candid and straightforward while having folks come away from the exchange feeling like you were just that – no more, no less – is a key management skill and a critical success factor that will serve you well throughout your career.
Make no mistake; this is by no means straightforward. It takes skill to be direct while being tactful. To hit right between the eyes without people feeling as if you’ve invaded their space or overstepped your bounds. To be crisp and expedient without being short or rude.
Here are a few relatively common workplace scenarios to demonstrate how to be direct, but with finesse:
A coworker’s behaviour is driving you nuts, kissing up to the boss, for example.
Don’t say: “Hey John, how can you breathe with your head that far up the boss’s behind?”
Do say: “Hey John, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, so I just wanted to give you a heads up. People are starting to talk about the way you interact with the boss so you might want to tone it down a bit.”
An employee’s work is consistently sub-par.
Don’t say: “Geez Frank, you make more mistakes than everyone else combined. What are you, an idiot or something?”
Do say: “Frank, I know you’re trying hard and I appreciate that. But I wanted to give you some direct feedback and see what I can do to help you improve the quality of your work so it’s on par with the rest of the team.”
Your boss is micromanaging you.
Don’t say: “I’ve had lots of managers and they’ve always been happy with my performance. I don’t get why you’re all over me on every little thing. What’s it going to take to satisfy you?”
Do say: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been managing me closely lately and I wanted to chat about it to see how I can do a better job of giving you what you need and instilling confidence in my ability.”
A peer is stepping on your toes.
Don’t say: “Look Jennifer, I’m in charge of product PR, not you. I think we’ll get along much better if you stay out of my way and let me run things my way.”
Do say: “Jennifer, you seem to be very much vested in how product PR goes down. I’d like to know what you think of my team’s efforts and how we can work together more effectively.”
Although each situation is different, there are some common threads:
- Clearly and neutrally position your message so it’s clear but isn’t as likely to evoke a defensive response or cause the other person to put up barriers. On the contrary, if you do it right, you invite the other person to engage in a positive way.
- Don’t assume the other person is aware of how their behaviour appears or affects you and others. Instead, start from the position that they’re not aware and you’re there to help them. By opening up a dialog, you may even learn that your own behaviour played a role you weren’t aware of.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and approach them as if you’re a team with common goals, which probably is the case on some level. Stay away from what bugs you and focus on the bigger picture since you’re most likely to agree on that.
- Be professional. Just because it’s a contentious situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean you can’t – and shouldn’t – be considerate. You’ll get better results that way.
Bottom line: The examples may have been a bit over the top but I did that to get your attention and make a point. You may think you’re being more subtle than in the examples, but instead, you’re just being more subtle about how you insult, degrade, and demotivate people. The effect is the same. The point is don’t be subtle; be direct. Just do it in a way that will achieve positive results, as a good manager should.
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