November 23, 2007

The next step forward

In conversations with managers I often notice they find it hard to address things that are not going conform to expectations (e.g. topic X is not going very well). Here are some of the things they tell me they are trying:

1. "How do YOU think it is going?"
The good intention behind this approach is that the employee gets the opportunity to express his own view. But this approach often backfires. Employees may respond with suspicion to a question phrased this way. (What's HE after? What is REALLY behind this question?). Moreover, it turns out employees usually don't adress topic X themselves. And when the manager has to address topic X himself ("topic X is not going very well") the employee responds defensively and upset.

2. "X is not going very well"
A more direct approach might be to say something like: "I want to talk to you about X. It is not going very well. I would like you to do such and so." The good thing about this approach is that there is no beating about the bush. The manager is honest and to the point, the employee does not have to second guess. The disadvantage is that employees often respond defensively and immediately point out they have done lots of things very well and there are many reasons beyond their control why topic X is not going very well. In this direct approach (topic X is not going very well) people often don't receive acknowledgement and appreciation for what they have done well.

3. “ABC is going fine but X is not”
The strength of this approach is that the manager does not only mention what is wrong but also what is right. This means the message is more complete. Still, employees often react defensively to this kind of message. It is like they only respond to the second part of the message. Although the appreciation was given in the first part (ABC is going fine) it looks like the second part (but X is not) somehow erases the first part of the message. Managers who try this approach with the best of intentions sometimes ask me desperately: "If this doesn't work what else can I try to show that I do appreciate ABC? How can I prevent them from getting defensive?"

An approach inspired by solution-focused principles often works well:

4. “ABC is going well. The next step forward is X.
This approach has two characteristics. The appreciation is mentioned specifically and the employee gets the opportunity to respond (if he wants to). After the appreciation has been shown the word BUT is avoided. Instead, what is not going well enough is presented as the next step forward. By doing this, you make sure that the expressed appreciation (ABC is going well) does not get 'erased' but still stands.

An example:
Manager: I'd like to have a word with you about the client presentation you did yesterday, is that okay?
Employee: Ehm …Okay, fine. What about it?
Manager: I thought your presentation looked beautiful and very professional. I can see you have become better and better in this.
Employee: Thanks. I put in a lot time to get it looking like this.
Manager: It shows. The result was great.
Employee: Gosh, thanks. Nice to hear.
Manager: As a good next step in making your presentations better and better, I'd like you to simplify the structure of your presentations a bit so that clients will understand them easier and they will become even more convincing.
Employee: Oh ... okay…. Tough one. There's so much to inform them about. I really wrestled with what to include and in what order.....
Manager: Sure, it ain't easy ... Let's talk about it.
(and so forth ...)
(thanks for thinking along to Gwenda Schlundt Bodien and Jim Mortensen)

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