Career Counsel

From dealing with your co-workers to your boss, Alison Green’s Ask A Manager will help you tackle any awkward moment at work

Published 5 years ago on Jan 04, 2019 3 minutes Read

Here’s the thing about being the boss: You have real power, which means that if there’s a problem, it’s very likely that you have the ability to fix it. You don’t need to rely on cajoling or persuading people to do something differently. You have the authority—and in many cases the obligation—to be straightforward about what you need and to hold people accountable to whatever expectations you set for them.

That doesn’t mean that you should be a jerk, of course. In fact, it’s the opposite of that: Because you have authority and thus a great deal of control over people’s livelihoods, you have an obligation to be kind and compassionate. But you need to do that while still setting a high bar for what you need and expect from your staff.

The hard part, of course, is figuring out how to balance all of that. Too often, in a quest to be kind, managers will soften their approach so much that their message is lost. But that ends up not being kind at all, if it denies an employee the chance to hear what he or she needs to do to excel at work (and in some cases to stay employed). And on the other end of the spectrum, some managers are so focused on the bottom line that they forget that they’re dealing with humans, and that humans tend not to respond well to being treated like automatons.

It can be hard to find the sweet spot between those two extremes, so it’s not surprising that many managers struggle to do it. But remembering these four principles can help you get there:

• The kindest thing you can do for your staff members is to be really clear with them. You’re going to have to have tough conversations as a manager—it’s part of the job. You might be tempted to put off a difficult “conversation or to soften the message. You can’t. You will do people a disservice if you’re anything other than straightforward, particularly when there are aspects of their performance that you need them to change. If you hesitate to have tough conversations or if you sugarcoat the message, you make it more likely that people will continue frustrating or disappointing you, and that can have real consequences for them—such as impacting their future raises, promotions, project assignments, reputation, and even tenure in the job. You owe them directness and honesty.

• Your tone matters…a lot. Tone is important with any potentially awkward or sensitive conversation, but it’s especially true when you’re the boss. Your tone can determine whether someone walks away thinking “That was hard to hear, but I’m glad we talked” or “That was horrible and I want to go hide in the bathroom the rest of the day.” The words you use need to be clear and direct, but your tone can still be kind and compassionate.

• Talk, don’t scold. When something goes wrong, managers, and especially newer managers, often think that they need to come down hard on employees. But the vast majority of the time, you don’t. Simply talking over what happened, why, and how you’ll avoid it in the future is a form of accountability, and it’s often all you need to get things back on track, particularly with conscientious employees. “What happened?” and “What’s going on?” are handy questions that are often all you need to make the point that you’re concerned about something. (Certainly if you find yourself having multiple “What happened?” conversations with the same person, you have a more serious issue on your hands…but you can start off with a lighter touch.)

This is an extract from Alison Green's Ask A Manager published by Ballantine Random House