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Learning to Say What You Mean to Employees

Tips for making sure your suggestions and corrections are understood by everyone

Q: What do you do when an employee overreacts to a correction from his or her supervisor? One of my supervisors has become leery of correcting an employee because of the strong response she receives. A small correction like, "Let me know when you are leaving early. I need to know when you will not be in the office," triggered a strong negative reaction and created a lot of tension in the office.

A: When a simple statement like "Let me know when you are leaving early" elicits a strong negative response, it means a problem exists, and it needs to be addressed immediately. But the problem is not new, and the responsibility is not totally yours. In fact, it is shared by managers in every industry and in every country in the world. So at least you are not alone.

It seems there are two basic issues here: First, what the supervisor said and how it was said; and second, how the employee perceived or misperceived that message. This is a classic case of ineffective communication. An employee may think he understood what was said, but it's possible that what he heard and understood were not what your manager intended.

As the senders of messages, you and your staff certainly have to look at the tone of voice used (too harsh or too soft?), your physical proximity to the individual when you sent the message (too close? too far?) and what your posture was (were you standing, sitting or leaning toward or away from the employee?). If misused, intentionally or unintentionally, each and every one of these factors can lead to misunderstandings, hard feelings, decreased productivity and decreased worker satisfaction. In some cases, these misperceptions can even result in sexual harassment charges.

Let's assume that the supervisor intended none of those negative factors. He or she simply made a basic statement, "Let me know when you are leaving early." Now let's consider the second part of the issue, the employee's perspective. How often has the supervisor made that or similar statements to that particular employee? Does the supervisor make similar statements, using approximately the same words, in the same way, with the same posture and tone to other employees? Might the offended employee believe the supervisor only makes those statements to him or her and is therefore singling out that individual for negative treatment? Does that person believe the supervisor is inappropriately checking up on him or her, or that the supervisor doubts he or she is working as hard as the others or thinks he or she is leaving early or taking longer breaks than the others?

As you can see, there are many possibilities in trying to interpret how and why your employee reacts so negatively to a seemingly innocuous statement. One of the most obvious is that the employee feels guilty for trying to sneak out early. But again, we do not know that for a fact. The simplest way to find out what the real issue is, and how many other issues may be boiling inside that employee as well, is to simply ask. Encourage the supervisor to invite the employee into a conference room or other neutral territory. (Never do this in front of other people.) Ask the supervisor to state what you saw happen (your supervisor made a statement about a certain behavior) and then describe the employee's reaction (a strong reaction). The supervisor describes his or her interpretation--such as, "I was very surprised that you were so upset." Then ask the employee to explain his or her perception and reactions.

By going direct, you or your supervisor may uncover possibilities that you never even imagined. Here are some: The supervisor picks on some people, doesn't trust others or acts like a "mother hen," constantly micromanaging. The employee may have to rush out to pick up a child or an elderly person, or care for a sick family member or friend. The employee is unhappy in the job, underpaid or underutilized. Or perhaps that employee has to leave early or exactly on time for a doctor's appointment or an ongoing medical treatment. Who knows? Only the individual involved knows, and you will only find out by directly addressing the issue with the employee.

The key issue here is to reopen the lines of communication so that all parties deliver, receive and understand verbal and nonverbal messages in the intended manner. If your goal is to ensure the highest levels of productivity and employee satisfaction, with the lowest levels of turnover and absenteeism, then using clear communication is one of the best methods to achieve your goal.

Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.

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