To be honest, I hesitated before writing this post. What I didn’t want it to be was, “Here’s what you need to tell those misbehaving staff” post. In my many years of managing people, I have found that whenever I have taken that approach I’ve been met with a glassy-eyed stare, like I’m Charlie Brown’s teacher. “Blah, blah, blah…”
I know it’s counterintuitive, but the most important piece of advice I can give you when confronting your employees with difficult issues is to listen. Ask questions, and really listen.
I recently came across a piece in the Harvard Business Review that I highly recommend on the topic. It’s entitled, “How to really listen to your employees.” Take the time to read it when you can.
With the right people on your team, hard conversations can reach deeper issues. And by listening to understand, you can redeem a difficult situation and turn it into a growth opportunity for you and your staff!
Here’s how I like to navigate 10 tough conversations in the workplace. These are all real situations I’ve had to confront with employees over the years. It was rarely as simple as I thought it would be, but that’s part of what I love about being a manager-people always surprise me. And when I help someone grow personally and professionally, we both win!
- My employee is always late to meetings
- My employee is disengaged in meetings
- My employee answers their phone in meetings
- My employees shuts down other people in meetings by talking too much
- My employee doesn’t respond to nonverbal cues
- My employee doesn’t listen and asks questions we already covered
- My employee reiterates points made by others
- My employee shuts down other people by demeaning their ideas
- My employee misunderstands others
- My employee makes others uncomfortable with their direct communication
People who are consistently late may underestimate how long it will take to do everyday things like eating breakfast, styling their hair, or driving to work. Your employee may be miscalculating how long certain tasks take by as much as 40 percent. It’s a wonder they’re only five minutes late and not twenty-five!
Set up a private one-on-one meeting
It may be tempting it is to call out your habitually late employee the moment they are tardy to a meeting. But resist that urge. Public humiliation – whether during the actual meeting, at their cubicle or in the break room – isn’t going to get the results you want.
Either set up a formal meeting on your calendar or ask them to come to your office when they reach a good stopping point in whatever they’re working on. It should be quick and to the point – 15 minutes should be more than enough time.
Explain why their tardiness is a problem
Most people who are chronically late are well aware that it’s a problem, but no matter how many alarms they set or how much they try to prepare they just can’t get to the right place by the right time. Maybe you feel like you’re beating them over the head by listing off the negative side effects of their tardiness, but it’s important to embrace uncomfortable conversations if you want to see change.
I get the best results when I ask my employees outright what’s keeping them from making it to meetings on time. Doing so with consistent eye contact in a one-on-one setting encourages openness and honesty on their part.
Here are some reasons my employees have struggled getting to meetings on time:
Their schedule is too full
Help your team member figure out how to build more flex time into their schedule. Is there a project they could step away from? Could they can adjust their sleep schedule to get in an hour earlier? Are there some weekly or daily meetings that they don’t need to attend?
Previous meetings consistently run over time
It’s usually better to leave a meeting early than to arrive to a meeting late. If the previous meetings can’t be changed, suggest your employee start the meetings by sharing their parameters: “Just to let you all know, I have another meeting at 11 so I’m going to have to leave at 10:50.”
They lack discipline
Your employee may need to learn how to gauge time more accurately. They could try timing everyday tasks to compare how long they think they’ll take to how long they really take. For example, how long does it take to walk from their desk to the conference room? How long, on average, do they spend writing one email? How long does it take them to eat a quick snack? Ask them to focus on timing and tasks that directly affect their arrival time to meetings.
They have no idea why they’re always late
If your worker seems uncertain, don’t pressure them; give them a few days to think about it. Ask them to be more observant throughout the day and log the causes of what’s holding them up. Have them brainstorm in-the-moment things they could’ve done to prevent being late. When you meet with them a few days later, create a solution using their list and hold them accountable to it.
How I actually handled it
I have teenagers—teenagers who, for some reason, have difficulty waking up in the morning. (Not that I ever had that problem as a teenager!) If I had a dime for every time I heard, “I didn’t hear my alarm,” I’d be a rich man. My solution? Set multiple alarms that can only be shut off manually, and put them in different places that they can’t reach unless they get out of bed. It didn’t work all the time, but more often than not it got them on their way!
I had an employee that struggled with timeliness—his name is Nick. Nick was a conscientious employee in almost every sense of the word, except constantly late to meetings. He always had a reason; sometimes it was traffic, sometimes oversleeping. Sometimes it was even “I got engulfed in my work and I forgot.”
People rely heavily on notification systems on their phones and computers, and Nick was no exception. I asked him to set four alerts for each meeting: 1 hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, and 5 minutes. Once he did that, he started figuring out how long it took him to prepare to be on time. While he was never the earliest guy to the meeting, he eventually turned it around and wasn’t longer perpetually late.
Employee engagement has been a trendy topic lately. Disengagement in meetings is easy to spot: glazed eyes, delay in responding, staring out the window, fidgeting. But it’s not always easy to fix.
The meeting itself could be the problem
Start by asking yourself some questions:
- Do your meetings regularly go longer than scheduled?
- Are people often confused after meetings because you bounced from topic to topic?
- Do you hold meetings when a simple email would have sufficed?
- Are your meetings guided by ground rules?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, the meeting – not your employee – may be the problem.
Here are some of the ground rules that worked well for one of my teams:
- We will have open, frank discussions within the room, and solidarity outside the room.
- Silence means agreement.
- We will honor and respect the processing pace of our team members.
- We give our fellow team members permission to speak freely into our lives.
- Leadership Team members are leaders who can and should have access to all staff regardless of reporting structure.
- Broad principles are decided as a team; detailed implementation should be done individually.
- We will turn off cell phones and refrain from using laptops in a manner that diverts our focus from the discussion.
- We will engage in constructive conflict that helps us get to the bottom of issues.
Once you realize the meeting is the problem, all it takes is a little humility on your part to ask your employees how they think you can improve meetings. You can also read up on some strategies for conducting meetings to make your meetings more efficient and productive than you ever thought possible.
When the employee is the problem
Once you know for sure the problem lies primarily with your employee, start by privately asking privately what they’re working on and why they appear disengaged. Ask them to reflect on how their disengagement affects the team and give them a picture of what it looks like to the meeting leader – whether that’s you or one of their coworkers.
I’ve found that getting my employees engaged in finding solutions makes them more eager to follow through. Ask your employee for suggestions on how meetings can be more effective and engaging. Just because your meetings work for you doesn’t mean they work for every other attendee.
But if you know your meeting structure is fine, it’s time to ask yourself if the disengaged team member is essential to the meeting. If not, set them free. Sure, you might cover topics that are interesting or affect the employee, but that doesn’t mean they need to attend, and insisting they attend may affect the rest of the team. Instead, send them a memo summarizing the meeting with people to contact if they have questions.
How I actually handled it
The ‘set them free’ model is one I’ve used on several occasions, and I’ve certainly ‘had the talk’ with several staff. But occasionally, I’ve had people on my team who appear to be disengaged but really aren’t. Lynda, a woman I worked with for years, seemed to spend meetings staring into space. It was annoying and made me want to blurt out, “Excuse me, but is your daydreaming being interrupted by our important meeting?”
Instead of being a jerk, I decided to ask a few questions. Upon doing so, I realized that Lynda was just shy. To really engage and think about the problem we were discussing, she needed to listen, and making eye contact was so uncomfortable it distracted her. We talked about it and decided it was an opportunity to ask some questions of the team.
At our next meeting, we asked each person, “How do you best engage in a meeting?” When it came to Lynda, she shared her process and was met with grace and understanding from the rest of the team. Not only did we all now know and understood her process, but everyone had the chance to share their own best practices. This helped us make some meeting adjustments that helped our team draw closer and work more effectively. It was a win-win!
Update your meeting norms. I’m a big fan of meeting norms, or ‘ground rules’. Every workplace should have ground rules for meetings. They set up expectations and generally make meetings more pleasant and effective for everyone.
Phone-related ground rules could include:
- Silence is golden–turn off your ringer.
- Two conversations are never better than one–don’t answer calls.
- Enter stealth mode–log off social media.
- Keep your thumbs still–no texting.
Don’t forget to include a ‘sanity clause’; something that defines when breaking the rules to take a call is okay. My team has a two-part sanity clause:
You can answer your phone if:
- You have an emergency, or
- You’re dealing with an urgent customer issue
When one of us has to answer our phone, we step outside the room. Then, if possible, a manager or coworker who is up to date on the situation explains why we’re taking the call.
Create a special rule
Discuss any issues with phone use in meetings in a one-on-one with your employee. Try to do it shortly after a meeting where they took a call.
Maybe it’s a bad habit they developed at their old job, or they don’t think the meetings they’re in are necessary. Or maybe they just don’t understand what qualifies as an emergency.
Ask them gently why they’re answering their phone during meetings. You want to get to the root of the problem–past the “I thought it would be an important call” excuse.
If they don’t seem to get that they need to follow the ground rules like everyone else, set a hard and fast rule they can understand.
And throughout all your discussions, take time to explain the ‘why’ of the rules – whether they’re team-wide or specific to this one employee. Throughout the process it’s important to remember that understanding paves the road to change.
How I actually handled it
Brad was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with, but it always seemed like he was dealing with some kind incoming emergency on his phone that was more important than our meeting. In fact, that was one of the reasons everyone saw him as a nice guy–he was responsive and quick to help!
When we first met to discuss the issue, I started by affirming his willingness to drop everything to help someone. Then I explained the problem–the rest of us had to stop whatever we were doing when he answered his phone, which not only derailed the momentum of whatever we were accomplishing, but also wasted a lot of time. A 10-minute phone call when there were seven people in the room cost 70 minutes of productivity!
Brad was shocked and appalled; he had never thought of it that way before.
When I asked him how many of the phone calls were so urgent they couldn’t wait until the end of our meeting, he thoughtfully replied, “Probably zero.” From that point on, it was no longer an issue.
Have I mentioned it’s a good idea to talk to your people?
Every office has at least 1 employee who takes a breath and talks for 20 minutes. They make meetings take forever, everyone disengages, and when they finally wrap it up, it’s hard to get everyone’s attention again. It’s awkward–but sometimes it feels like your only option is to grin and get through it.
Why are they so longwinded?
I know it’s hard – but pay attention to what your employee says when they’re being longwinded. It might help you figure out why they’re rambling. At the very least you’ll have some examples for them when you chat.
Here are some reasons people ramble on and on and on and on and…
There’s a chance your employee doesn’t realize they’ve been talking too long. They’re excited about the topic and they think they have a unique approach that their coworkers aren’t familiar with. Swept up in their excitement, they forget to check social cues to make sure their coworkers are following their train of thought.
They’re a know-it-all
Maybe they’ve been at the office longer than anyone else, or they have more experience, or they’re insecure. Maybe they think they understand the topic better than their coworkers, so they show it by over-explaining. They think if they keep rephrasing what they’re saying, it’ll eventually click for their coworkers. Hoping that repetition will help it sink in, they keep talking until someone stops them.
They’re a verbal processor
People are either verbal or non-verbal processors. When you give a verbal processor free reign, expect your meetings to go long. Problems will occur when they talk so long that other employees can’t even get a word in.
They’re an overcompensating professional
For some reason, many people (especially when they’re new to the workforce) think that being professional means using complex sentence structures, passive voice and loads of jargon. They’re wrong. Maybe they’re unsure of themselves, so they try to include as many options as possible. They think if they keep talking, maybe they’ll stumble onto the right answer and their coworkers will think they’re smarter.
There’s a chance your employee has been told they were too blunt before – at a previous job or by a friend or family member. Or maybe they’re afraid of being too blunt, and they worry that being more concise will come across as rude, so they add fluff to their thoughts to avoid coming across as curt.
Coach them one-on-one
Long-windedness isn’t something that goes away after one or two conversations. You’ll need to dedicate some time to coaching your employee out of this bad habit.
In every conversation, be as straightforward as you can. Subtle hints aren’t going to work; be an example of how to be direct without being rude.
Start your conversation with something like this: “You may or may not have noticed this, but you’re often the main speaker during meetings. I love that you aren’t afraid to speak up, and I always appreciate your good humor.”
Then, start talking about why their rambling is a problem: “But when you steer most of our conversations…
- “…your coworkers get fewer chances to speak, so we could be missing valuable solutions.”
- “…you’ll get fewer opportunities for career advancement because upper-levels managers don’t have time to listen to rambling speeches.”
- “…it’s disrespectful of everyone’s time because it makes meetings longer.”
You need to convince them that more isn’t always better, especially in this case.
Throughout your coaching sessions, avoid tearing them down. You don’t want to make them feel like they have nothing worthwhile to say. What you want to do is help them condense their comments into bite-sized pieces people can use.
The best way to start your employee on the path to change is by encouraging them to pursue humility. They need to focus less on being understood and more on being brief. Increased humility will help them realize their coworkers have things to say that are just as important–and maybe even more important.
As much as private coaching might seem to be working, what are you supposed to do when they fall back into old habits? Suddenly, you’re right back where you started, and their coworkers are once again checking out of meetings.
So instead of calling them out verbally when they’ve spoken too long in a meeting, decide on a nonverbal cue with them. Not only will this help you alert them when they’re talking too long, they’ll also have to stay tuned in while they’re talking.
Here are some nonverbal cue ideas:
- Point to the ceiling
- Put an arm on the table
- Scooch your chair back
- Stretch your arms as if you’re the most obnoxious yawner ever
- Flip your hair over your shoulder
- Pull at your earlobe
- Raise a palm just above table-level in a “stop” gesture
Are some of these a little ridiculous? Absolutely. But they’ll be that much harder for your employee to miss.
How I actually handled it
This solution requires that you have a good relationship with your employee. Jack was a guy I knew wanted to succeed and was willing to take constructive criticism. In addition to the suggestions above, I would also time Jack’s monologues down to the second. Then, when we met to discuss the issue, I asked him how long he thought he was speaking. He was completely unaware of how long it took to make his point. From there, I asked about how he might organize his thoughts so points can be made more succinctly.
Did it work?
To an extent, yes, but it took some time and a good deal of coaching. Folks like this aren’t processing if they’re not talking, and when they’re processing, they assume that everyone is as interested in their process as they are. Helping Jack understand how it felt to listen to his process helped him pre-process. Still, verbal processors are verbal processors, and though it got markedly better, it never completely went away.
As much as 93% of our communication may be nonverbal. We can argue about the exact percentage, but we know it’s a majority. Crazy, right?
Sitting back versus forward. Crossed arms versus relaxed arms. Looking up versus looking down.
Having an employee who’s poor at picking up on nonverbal cues can be a big hindrance in the workplace.
They often won’t understand when coworkers are…
- Trying to end a conversation
- Beating around the bush
Dealing with this issue is difficult, but it’s not impossible.
Don’t try to diagnose them
Many people think “social disorder” when they observe someone who isn’t great with social cues. Don’t do that. Employees can have trouble responding to nonverbal cues for a variety of reasons:
- They’re too focused on themselves
- They’re not observant
- They’re a poor listener
- They’re distracted
- They don’t care
- They never learned
You can try asking a question like, “Are there any accommodations we should know about to make your work more comfortable?” But if they don’t share a diagnosis with you, don’t pry any further.
Coach them one-on-one
By setting aside your own time, they’ll see that you care about helping them grow. And when they realize that, they’ll want to put in the effort to start picking up on nonverbal cues.
Give your employee specific examples of nonverbal cues, focusing on the ones they’ve missed. To avoid overwhelming your employee, it might help to cover a single cue each time you meet.
You could make your first coaching session on what to do when people start to physically back away, your next on talk about what it means when people cross their arms or legs, and then move on to helping them understand what amount of eye contact is appropriate.
When your employee misses a nonverbal cue, note it and address it in private. Help them understand what they’re continuing to miss and what they need to devote the most time to improving.
How I actually handled it
There are countless scenarios when I’ve seen this happen (and I’ve done it, too!), but if this is a habitual issue with someone, I like to give them one piece of advice:
I have a friend, Tom, who is knowledgable, personal, and has a certain amount of charisma. He’s an excellent presenter, but he’s also very detail oriented–occasionally, too much so. Because he isn’t particularly intuitive, he’ll miss the signals his audience gives him that say, “We know enough about this…please move on.”
He and I talked a good deal about this. To keep himself in check, Tom now presents in shorter snippets. Between snippets, he asks his audience if what he’s sharing makes sense and if they need more or less detail. This is a great tactic because he doesn’t need to rely on intuition to keep his audience engaged–he actively engages them and gets their feedback verbally, adjusting his message accordingly.
Encourage some of your staff to try this. It works!
It’s beyond frustrating when you feel like you’re being clear with an employee, but they just doesn’t seem to get it.
As you talk about expectations and performance, they nod and smile as if they understand, but they don’t act on it or they’re back in your office 30 minutes later, asking the same questions again because, whoops! They forgot.
I don’t mind repeating myself once, but after the third or fourth time, I admit I get less patient.
They’re a bad listener
Some people never develop good listening skills.
Here are some signs that your employee just isn’t a good listener:
- Poor eye contact
- Empty stare
- Unable to answer relevant questions on-the-spot
- Poor conversationalist
While it isn’t a quick fix to teach someone listening skills, it’s better than having an employee who is intentionally disengaged. With poor listening, the root issue is a matter of skills rather than attitude, which is always hard to address.
Explain to your employee why good listening skills are critical to their success at your company. Not only does lack of listening disrespect the people speaking, but it also erodes your employee’s reputation. Active listeners are the key to smoother meetings and better team morale.
To help your employee improve their listening skills, you have two main options.
- Coach themone-on-one.
- Send them to some kind of communication skills training. Poor listeners often lack other key communication skills as well.
They’re intentionally ignoring you
Employees who disregard you are a bigger problem, because it’s usually a matter of attitude.
Here are some signs that your employee has mentally clocked out of your conversation:
- Working on computer
- Disengaged body language
- Checking phone
- Switching topics
It’s time to find out why they’ve unplugged from conversations.
- Do they think meetings run too long?
- Are their coworkers too long-winded?
- Do they feel like no one listens to them?
- Do they not respect your authority?
- Are they underappreciated?
Once you understand why your employee thinks it’s okay to zone out, you can address the root issue. Don’t give them tips for being a better listener before helping them want to be a better listener.
It may be hard for you to hear that your employee thinks you under-appreciate them or that your meetings run unnecessarily long. But it’s important to listen to them and change when possible. After all, your job as manager is to help your employees grow; not just to make them do things the way you prefer.
Acknowledge that you might be part of the problem
It’s possible that you’re setting a poor example without even realizing it. Your employee may see certain things you do – whether it’s body language, poor conversational skills or refusal to adopt a proposed policy change – as a sign that it’s okay not to listen.
Don’t be afraid to learn from your employee even as you’re attempting to correct them. One key to being a better manager is acknowledging that you might be to blame for some of your employees’ problems.
- Do you listen well?
- Are you communicating as clearly as you think?
- Is your body language reflecting your feelings and message?
An employee who isn’t getting things the first time can be a sign that you aren’t communicating clearly enough.
How I actually handled it
As a manager, I sometimes have to fight the temptation to take on responsibility that my staff should own. While it’s true that the responsibility for communication lies with the communicator, it’s also true that some people are just poor listeners!
Paula was one such listener. She was very capable and smart, but we consistently dealt with miscommunication issues. After several coaching sessions, I asked Paula to start documenting our conversations, and had her send me the documentation. This not only cemented our conversation into her mind, but it provided a written record of what we discussed and decided.
It worked! We had very few “he said, she said” conversations after she started following that protocol, and we were both much happier!
This is best dealt with as soon as you realize it’s happening, and how you deal with it will depend on why your employee is repeating their co-workers’ thoughts.
The first step should be to pull them aside and ask if they’re aware of the problem. Depending on how they answer, explain that it’s not only tedious for other team members, but it also doesn’t reflect well on them. Brainstorm ways they can grow in this area.
They’re a verbal processor
Perhaps your employee needs to repeat new concepts and ideas out loud to get a good grasp of them, so they rephrase things their coworkers say to show that they’re paying attention.
But to their coworkers, it can feel like your employee is…
- Challenging their ideas
- Trying to take credit for their ideas
- Making fun of them
- Not getting it
This disconnect is easy to fix: start a conversation among your employees. It’s helpful for your team to know how everyone best processes and learns new information.
But before you have this conversation with the team, talk to your employee one-on-one for a few minutes. Explain that some of their coworkers get frustrated when they verbally process everything. Tell them about your plan to discuss everyone’s learning and processing styles, and mention that this will be a great time to listen to their coworkers, as well as to disclose why they repeat what others have already said. And if they don’t want to bring it up themselves, you could plan a round robin during the meeting where everyone talks about how they see their learning and processing styles impacting their team.
This kind of meeting is helpful because it lets verbal processors find each other. For teams with mostly internal processors, it can be more productive to have the verbal processors process alone with one another. Give them permission to stay a few minutes after meetings to talk over new concepts out loud. Allow the opposite as well: give internal processors a quiet space to think through new concepts on their own.
They’re filling space
Perhaps someone told your team member that they’re too quiet and need to speak up more, or silence just makes them uncomfortable. Unsure of what to say, they try repeating or summarizing what their coworker just said. They hope hearing the same thing in a different way will spark new ideas or keep the conversation going.
Pull your employee aside for a one-on-one meeting to make two things clear to them:
- Silence can be good for the team. It has a ton of benefits, including giving internal processors time to form their thoughts.
- Repetition isn’t meaningful contribution. Many people get annoyed when others repeat themselves, even if they do it themselves. Mention that you’re glad they’re speaking up, but you’d like to hear more of their own thoughts.
The gist of your conversation will probably be, “Good try, but it’s not working. Try something else.” Spend some time brainstorming more meaningful ways they can speak up; you could even practice embracing long silences.
They’re trying to get credit
Often we don’t realize when we’re taking credit from someone else. Your employee may think they’re repeating their coworkers ideas to help with clarity, but subconsciously, they’re doing it to seem smarter and get ahead; they want to look better than their coworkers.
This is a serious issue that you need to address as soon as you realize it’s happening. There’s a good chance your employee’s coworkers will bring it to you before you notice it yourself, and if they do, assure them that you will take it seriously. One immediate action you can suggest is that they CC and BCC you or other supervisors on emails with their problematic coworker. Then, you can make sure you’re giving credit where it’s due.
How I actually handled it
Rachel was a serial reiterater. (It was so bad, I just made up a new word to describe her!) She would listen to a discussion attentively, and once all the ideas were on the table, she’d take the idea she liked most and state it again, almost word-for-word!
I sat down with Rachel and tried to get to know her. I tried to understand her gifts, her fears, her insecurities and the way she felt about the team. She explained she’d been feeling left out and looked down upon by the rest of the staff. I didn’t think that was true, but perception is reality to the one perceiving it.
So I gave her some responsibilities where she could be the point person–the expert. With her own areas of expertise, her reiteration problem nearly ceased. She became–and felt like–a vital and respected member of our team.
Remember to ask questions, and you just might get to the root issue that gives you the key to a happier and more productive staff.
Many workplaces have a resident expert who’s so condescending that everyone avoids asking them for help. It seems as if each time they speak, they damage the open communication you’ve been trying to foster.
When you see this happen it’s important to address it immediately.
Address it specifically
Regardless of whether they meant to knock their coworker down, they did.
Record their condescending remarks exactly. By documenting the exact phrases that rubbed people the wrong way, you’ll prevent your employee from saying, “I never said that,” and you’ll identify key phrases they use to be demeaning.
Common condescending phrases:
- As we all know…
- Of course…
- Don’t you remember?
- I get what you’re saying, but…
- I thought you knew…
Tone, body language and context will also help you know whether a phrase was meant to be demeaning.
As you speak with your employee one on one, expect to hear, “I didn’t mean it like that.” When you do, try responding with something like this:
“I understand that you didn’t intend to demean your coworkers, but remember that perception is reality to the person perceiving it. I don’t expect you to control how your coworkers react to what you say, but I’d like you to work on choosing your words more carefully, softening your tone of voice and opening up your body language.”
Find out if their condescension was on purpose
Many people who are told they’re condescending don’t even realize they’ve been talking down to others.
Your employee may notrealize they’re being rude.
When experts get a chance to share about something they love, they easily go overboard. Without meaning to, they provide too many details and make the question-asker feel stupid for asking.
Here are some things that might be prompting your employee to accidentally demean their coworkers, paired with quick and easy solutions:
Why it stinks: It can be hard to word your questions precisely to get the answers you need. When coworkers ask your employee an unclear question, they may share loads of details, hoping they’ll answer the question eventually. In this case, condescension is an accidental byproduct of muddled communication.
Solution:Help your employees understand how to get to the root of questions instead of diving into an answer right away by having them ask clarifying questions first.
For example, saysomeone asks your employee how to set up a report spreadsheet. Their first instinct might be to list all the steps to setting up the spreadsheet. Instead, teach them to ask, “Do you need help with a specific part or do you want a quick tutorial of the whole process? “
They have bad previous experiences
Why it stinks: At some point, someone scolded your employee for not providing enough details. They didn’t get mind-numbingly thorough, so a project failed or suffered. Now, they’ve changed philosophies from “less is more” to “better safe than sorry”, and their coworkers are suffering because of it.
Solution: If you’re the one who scolded them, take responsibility for not being clear about how you wanted them to respond. Try saying something like,
“I think I may not have been clear when we discussed why that project failed last year. Although you may not have provided some key details, I didn’t specifically ask for them, and I can’t expect you to read my mind. Lately, I’ve noticed that you’re providing too many details. While it’s helping us avoid a repeat of last year, it’s also making your coworkers feel looked down upon. So let’s talk about how you can gauge the amount of detail you need to give.”
Having taken some responsibility for the failure, you can both move forward; your employee will feel less like they’re walking on eggshells, trying to avoid a repeat of last time.
If incident happened under a different manager, reassure them that you’re different. Try something like this:
“I’ve noticed that you often over-explain when answering questions. You’ve mentioned before how a past project failed because you didn’t provide some crucial information even though you weren’t asked to provide it. I want you to trust that that won’t happen here, and if it does, I know I’ll be just as much at fault for not asking the right questions.”
Then, teach them some techniques for finding out exactly what a person is asking–you can use the same techniques mentioned in the section above for resolving vague questions.
Why it stinks. Whoops! You hired someone who doesn’t know as much as they said they did. Frankly, this kind of thing is bound to happen every once in a while.
But there’s also a chance your employee has been thrust into a project they weren’t prepared for. Unsure of themselves, they ramble endlessly whenever their coworkers ask them a question. Quantity replaces quality, and no one gets the answers they need.
Solution:Help them! Regardless of how your employee got in over their head, it’s your job as their manager to do everything you can to help them succeed.
Here are some tips to help an employee who’s missing some knowledge:
- Move them to a different project. Can you find someone else more qualified to step in? Then do it. Your employee has talents that aren’t being used in their current project. Don’t be afraid to move employees around so everyone’s talents are actually being used.
- Enable them to educate themselves. Connect your employee with coworkers who have the knowledge they lack, or point them to a night class or book that will help them out.
- Talk it out. If you can’t move your employee to a different project and there isn’t time for them to learn what they need to know, the best thing you can do is be a sounding board. Let them vent to you about roadblocks they’re encountering and help them recognize this as an opportunity for growth.
Why it stinks:How many times does someone have to ask you the same question before you get annoyed? Your employee could be talking down to their coworkers because this is the zillionth time they’ve been asked this question. Being condescending may not be the most mature response, but it’s hard to stay calm when someone is re-asking the same question over and over and over…
Solution: Have their coworkers document the procedure or information they never remember. Discuss some strategies for your employee to remind their coworkers kindly that they’ve already answered their question, and they have more pressing tasks than re-explain something to them.
How I actually handled it
We’ve outlined several ways to handle people who struggle in this area, but sometimes, your effort to rehabilitate someone is not going to be enough.
Brandon was a brilliant guy. His ideas were almost always on point, and he had a gift for strategy that bordered on the supernatural. There was only one problem:
Brandon was a bona fide jerk.
There’s really no other way to put it. If he wasn’t talking, he was sarcastic, surly and disrespectful. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how cancerous he was to my team until it was too late. I so desperately needed his skills that I forgot my number one leadership rule, popularized by management guru Peter Drucker:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Brandon was killing our culture and my other team members were suffering, feeling insignificant, small and angry. “But I need him to reach our lofty goal,” I told myself. The truth is that the goal wasn’t worth accomplishing with Brandon on the team.
I tried to help him understand the impact he was having on the team several times, but eventually, I had to tell him there was no longer a place for him on my team. Brandon left, and my team breathed a collective sigh of relief. While we missed his brilliance, it turned out that the rest of the team was pretty smart, too. Collectively, we were able to adapt and replace everything he brought.
Handle it better than I did. Take an honest look at the demeaning people on your team; can they can be rehabilitated in time to save your team from a cultural meltdown? If not, take the piece of advice that I couldn’t: “What should be done eventually must be done immediately.”
It’s frustrating when you can’t seem to get through to someone. Every time you explain a situation, they go in a completely different direction. In the nicest possible way, you wish you could grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them.
But it isn’t that easy.
Reflect on past situations when they’ve misunderstood and set up a one-on-one to find out the ‘why’ behind it all. Only then can you address the actual problem–the ‘what’.
Let’s look at some causes and solutions for why your employee could be misunderstanding you, their coworkers and even clients.
Why it happens. Whether it’s a meeting or a brand-new project, context is key. Your employee could be too intimidated to ask for context, or they didn’t realize they needed it until it seemed too late. Either way, their lack of background is costing everyone on the team precious time.
How to solve it. As soon as you realize someone is lacking key information, give it to them! It could be in the form of training, an important document or peer mentoring. Whatever it is, it’s your job as manager to give them the resources they need to overcome this. You might also offer them tips for asking for more information whenever they feel they lack it.
Why it happens.Every office has its own vocabulary; the words you use to talk about strategy, marketing, productivity, policies, product, results, and goals. But your employee’s previous workplace may have used similar terms for completely different things.
How to solve it.Define things! Create a simple, collaboration-friendly document with commonly used terms and their definitions. It sounds daunting, but it will become a valuable resource for your struggling team member and future new hires. Also, make it clear that your door is always open, and so are their coworkers’ doors; encourage non-judgmental lines of communication so that everyone feels comfortable asking questions.
They’re hard of hearing (for real!)
Why it happens.No one likes repeating themselves, and people especially don’t like repeating “I can’t hear you!” So your hard-of-hearing employee smiles and nods and pretends they caught what their coworker mumbled during their presentation; they pretend to hear them when the AC whirs on and drowns out last 10 minutes of a brainstorming meeting. And your employee might not speak up because they’re embarrassed about their hearing loss(especially if they’re young).
How to solve it.Your team member’s hearing loss may be covered under the ADA, so you may need them to disclose it before you can do anything. Then, you should make reasonable accommodations to help them miss less, like recording or transcribing meetings for later review.
Why it happens. There are likely multiple cultures represented at your office. Different cultures have vastly different communication styles, so even though you might think everyone is on the same page, they might not be; and their cultural norms could keep them from admitting that everything isn’t okay.
How to solve it
Acknowledge that different communication styles are source of the issue, but don’t assume your employee needs to abandon their culture to fit in. You’ll both benefit from taking time to understand one another’s communication styles. Figure out where and how you deal with things differently and agree on a unified approach. For example, say their culture values feigned agreement over voiced dissension. Discuss when it’s okay for them to play peacekeeper and when they need to speak up, and vice versa; what are some times when you could play peacekeeper instead of speaking up?
Why it happens.Ever tried to complete another person’s sentences? For me, it rarely works as well as I’d like. Your employee could think they know exactly where someone’s going, so they don’t ask many clarifying questions and everyone ends up on a different page – sometimes in completely different books!
How to solve it
Enforce a team-wide policy that no question is a bad question; it’s better to ask too many questions than too few. Would you rather spend an extra five minutes answering questions or an extra five hours fixing your employee’s mistake?
Big picture strategies
So you’ve figured out why your employee seems to misunderstand things; Good! But don’t forget to take some time to discuss the root issues.
Why didn’t they do anything when they realized how much they were misunderstanding you, their coworkers, or clients? What will they do the next time they realize they’ve misunderstood?
You’ll want to work with them to help them become comfortable asking for help and clarification. Brainstorm some tactics to keep them engaged and on top of the context of discussions, and check with them in a few weeks to see how they’re doing.
How I actually handled it
This problem is often about learning styles. I have a specific learning style, and as a manager I often present information in the manner that best suits me. The problem is that if others metabolize information in a completely different way, I will miss them.
Several years ago I was leading a complete overhaul of my company. I had a clear vision, so I stood in front of my almost 100 staff members and laid out what I thought was a clear-cut path to success using statistics, charts and inspirational stories. At the end of our meeting the team was energized, inspired and ready to go – until they went back to their desks.
It turns out they had no idea what to do.
You see, I communicated in a style that would have motivated me. I don’t need a lot of direction; aim me at the problem and cut me loose. I’m ready to go!
My team wasn’t like that at all.
A short time later one of my leaders asked me, “Chris, do you generally know what you’re supposed to do every day? Do you know your priorities? Do you generally do them?” I answered unequivocally yes to all three. His reply?
It hit me like a brick to the head. My staff was floundering because I didn’t put systems in place to fill their work funnel. They needed clarity, detail and specific success criteria to thrive. My general, inspirational approach endeared them to me, but it didn’t solve their problem.
I quickly found capable leaders to provide the detail my staff needed to succeed. (I was the wrong person for that job!) They did a terrific job, and our corporate morale improved dramatically.
The moral of the story? Sometimes your staff misunderstands you because you haven’t provided the clarity they need. Misunderstanding will decrease as you seek to understand the needs of your staff. So dig in!
Most of us communicate the way we want others to communicate with us, so when we encounter someone with a different communication style we’re often put off. Unsurprisingly, most people complain more about others being too direct rather than not direct enough.
Figure out who’s uncomfortable with it
Has your whole workplace adopted a soft communication style, sprinkled with niceties and lots of polite language? Or are people constantly put off by the bluntness of one of their coworkers?
If their direct communication style is a poor cultural fit, you can ask your employee to adapt their communication style. You’re not asking them to change who they are, just that they pad their communication to be less brusque.
But, if it’s just the preference of a couple coworkers, they might need to get over it. Remind their coworkers that everyone’s communication styles are different.
If your team members have different styles of communication, consider holding a conference on effective communication. There are also some good personality inventories that everyone on your team could take. Everyone needs to learn that their way isn’t the only way at some point!
We useStrengthsFinder to better understand where people will thrive and how their minds work. Each employee has a little metal plaque at their desk inscribed with their top 5 strengths, and it’s been a helpful reminder on how we all process life differently.
Highlight that it’s a communication issue, not a personal issue
As you discuss your employee’s abruptness, use phrases that avoid making it seem like you’re asking them to change who they are; this will keep them from becoming defensive. Blunt communication isn’t a personality flaw, it’s a learned trait.
Here’s an example of what you could say:
“When you ask for something from your coworkers by 6 p.m., ‘I need this by 6 tonight’ is too blunt. Please take a few seconds to add a few niceties or a little small talk.”
Avoid saying things like:
“You’re too blunt with your coworkers. You need to be more polite and kind.”
By giving specific examples of when they’ve been too blunt, you draw a line. It will help them understand the difference between the problem being their actions versus something inherent to who they are.
Does your employee learn best by example? Have them observe and mimic how others structure their conversations and emails.
Help them understand how it makes others feel
Your employee might not understand why they need to change. They don’t think they’re being rude or impolite; if anything, they’re frustrated by how passive or indirect their coworkers can be.
Try some role playing to help them understand why bluntness doesn’t work for the team. If your employee doesn’t like when people communicate bluntly back at them, role playing could work well. As you role play, help them pay attention to a few things:
- What they’re saying
- How they’re saying it
- When they’re saying it.
They may also need to practice softening their tone of voice and body language – not just their words.
Help your employee understand exactly how people feel when they say certain things a certain way. Help them learn how else they could have made the point without making others uncomfortable.
How I actually handled it:
How did I deal with it? Well, honestly…
I was that guy.
The way my boss handled it was genius. He started with, “I know your heart is to make a contribution to the team. When you shared your opinion, I think you meant to communicate ‘this’, but when I saw the reaction of the team to your comments, I realized you had communicated something completely different. How do you think you could have handled that situation differently so that your team could metabolize your input?”
Yes, it was hard to hear, but my boss made enough positive deposits into my life that he could afford to make a few withdrawals, and we had conversations like this regularly. Eventually, his input helped me see myself the way others did. It changed the way I valued my teammates.
I’m grateful for the time my boss invested in walking me through that issue, and your employees will be grateful, too!
One last thing…
Years ago a friend of mine talked about the difficulty of having difficult, constructive conversations as “entering the tunnel of chaos”. He’s right. It is chaotic when you have no idea how the other person is going to respond. Frankly, there are times when I am genuinely afraid to walk into the room. I don’t want to hurt anybody, and I don’t want to be hurt.
But courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the ability to overcome fear with action. So be courageous! Take the initiative to “enter the tunnel of chaos” and help your team grow personally and professionally. You’ll be rewarded with a better employees and a better company culture!
Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to inform and inspire, but should not be considered legal advice. We’re not lawyers, just business people trying to share what we know!
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