When you are addressing problems in your work and your career, I usually recommend taking a soft approach. No matter how severe the problem, a few gentle words can often smooth the waters and get people back on track. That said, there will come a time in your career when you simply have to tell it like it is. While it does call for a certain amount of tact, this isn’t a time for sugar-coating the message. If you have tried resolving the problem with more subtle methods, then it might be time to sit down with the person and deliver a bit of unvarnished truth.
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While you might think it necessary to have these tough conversations only with those who work for you, you will often need to have them with your peers. These conversations can be more difficult, due to the different nature of your relationship, but they are just as important. If you cannot resolve a situation with a co-worker by talking it out, you may need to get your manager involved. This may have consequences far outside your control, though. It is better for both of you to work out your differences alone, rather than risk the annoyance of your boss.
The first rule of engagement in a situation like this is tact and decorum. Even though you are delivering bad news, you don’t need to be obnoxious about it. Bullying, threatening behavior will only further charge the atmosphere and usually results in dramatic scenes that do almost nothing to solve the problem. No matter how angry the other person may get, or how abusive, you need to remain as calm and respectful as possible. You job is to communicate the nature of the problem and what needs to be done to correct it, not belittle the person.
That said, the time for “beating around the bush” is over. You need to come to your point quickly and directly. You need to lay out real world examples of the problem that clearly illustrate what you mean. State them quickly and directly and then ask the person if they understand the issues you have presented. Some defensiveness is to be expected, but sometimes, feeling trapped, people can lash out at you, the company and everyone around them. It is up to you to keep the conversation on track, though. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into discussions that aren’t directly involved in the problem at hand. Remember, your goal is to make this the last conversation you need have about this problem. Stay focused and see it through.
In the past, I might have recommended you use language such as, “I feel…” when presenting your issues. Since subtler methods have failed to address this problem in the past, though, I would caution against it here. They give the other person the opportunity to dismiss your concerns as personal, rather than professional. They will see you as the problem, not the situation you are trying to correct.
In some cases, your own actions might have played a part in the creation of the problem. If so, clearly admit that. If you don’t bring it up, the other person surely will. That said, don’t take the entire burden on yourself. Perhaps your directions for a particular project were not clear in the beginning, then this was a failure on your part. If the other person continued to not perform their duties, though, even after multiple clarifications then the failure also lies with them.
The final, and most important, point to remember is that you cannot ignore problems, simply hoping they will go away. That is probably what brought you to have a discussion in the first place. When you ignore problems, they fester and grow until you are forced to deal with them in a supercharged environment of anger and spite. No matter how difficult it might be to address a problem now, I can guarantee you that it will only be more difficult should you wait.
From today forward, make a commitment to yourself and others to address problems and issues earlier and more directly. I can only imagine the amount of hours, dollars and tears that might be saved if we only took that commitment to heart. Today, not tomorrow, is always the best time to tell it like it is.