Talk it Out

Simple tactics can help you address sensitive issues with problem employees.
Talk it Out
Paul Falcone

For most of us, avoiding uncomfortable issues is like a big slug of built-up sludge and debris in a mainline sewer; the longer it goes unattended, the bigger it gets, until a huge, messy backup ensues that’s way worse than it otherwise might have been with earlier intervention.

The same is true for many managers and employees, who typically sidestep any number of workplace-related issues with the same fervor with which Superman avoided kryptonite. And make no mistake: The workplace is littered with such landmines, ranging from inappropriate attire and poor hygiene to more serious issues, such as chronic absenteeism, employee disputes, poor job performance, overzealous expressions of religious or political views, foul language or sexually offensive behavior, which can result in expensive litigation.

But there’s a way to address super-charged issues diplomatically and honestly without putting the employee or colleague on the defensive, says Paul Falcone, the author of several best-selling books, including 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees ( As a former human resources executive who’s held senior-level positions with Nickleodeon, Paramount Pictures and Time Warner, Falcone has seen his share of managerial issue avoidance — and its chaotic effects.

“The path of least resistance is avoidance … a lot of people avoid anything that’s uncomfortable,” says Falcone, who also serves on the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension School of Business and Management.

“It’s just human nature,” he continues. “Often the issues are either embarrassing or confrontational. Telling people that their sales numbers aren’t where they need to be isn’t so bad. But if someone is offending people because they’re too opinionated, or too loud, it’s hard to put it into words without offending them.

“And the higher up the management food chain you go, the wimpier people seem to get,” he adds. “Some people are more inclined to engage — the General Pattons out there. But most people avoid issues and hope they get fixed without any intervention. Most human beings just don’t want to share bad news — it’s not a natural thing for us.”

But dealing with uncomfortable issues is more important than ever because so many organizations are understaffed and stressed by budgetary constraints. Moreover, as competition increases, retaining key employees is critical to organizations’ success — and few things erode morale and motivate employees to jump ship more than managers who let problems fester, he notes.

“The ability to have these conversations and keep your team in line is more critical than ever before,” Falcone asserts. “People are exhausted and afraid … it’s not much fun when employees are running for the life vests.”

So how do managers change from avoiders to late adopters of tactful confrontation? It’s not easy, but by following a couple simple rules, they can soon begin to confidently address these thorny issues. The first one centers on what Falcone calls perception management, a strategy that allows managers to frame a discussion without the usual blame or accusations that sends employees into all-out defensive mode.

Using this tactic, a manager explains to an employee — while speaking respectfully, objectively and rationally, without a raised voice — how his or her behavior appears from the manager’s and colleagues’ viewpoints. The point is that perception is not necessarily right or wrong, it just is, and the employee in question may not be acting in malice, but instead just doesn’t understand that their words or actions might be perceived differently than from what he or she intends.

“No one does anything wrong, based on their model of the world,” Falcone says, noting that in all likelihood, employees embroiled in workplace issues don’t wake up each morning with the intent of making life difficult for their co-workers or manager. “We all evolve differently with our souls and personalities. Some people are more enlightened and see the wisdom of the bigger picture, while others operate from a my-way-or-hit-the-highway mentality.

“But the bottom line is that perception is reality until proven otherwise,” Falcone explains. “This tactic helps the employee see how their action can be perceived a different way, without the judgment and blame … and assumes he or she has good intentions. But then you must hold them accountable for their own perception management, which means they don’t have the green light to keep acting the way they have.”

That means if an employee frequently uses profanity that offends co-workers, for instance, the answer isn’t telling the employee’s colleagues that they need to toughen up — or buy earplugs. Instead, the employee must understand that he or she needs to stop swearing. “And if they can’t, maybe they should resign,” Falcone suggests.

The other technique involves putting offending employees on a guilt-trip of sorts, which works because it prompts them to consider how others feel about their actions or words — forces them to look inward and assume some level of responsibility for the problem, Falcone says.

“Guilt is an internal emotion, while anger is external,” he notes. “If you accuse somebody and make them angry, they respond by fighting back and going for the jugular. But when you point out how the employee’s actions make you or colleagues feel, the employee is more likely to say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend anyone.’

“When people react with anger, they’re effectively saying that the issue is 100 percent someone else’s problem,” Falcone continues. “But when you go a little softer and set it up right, they’ll be more sensitive to how you [and others] perceive their actions. The reality is you get more through guilt than with anger.”

Falcone concedes that to some skeptics, these techniques will seem almost Pollyana-ish and naïve. But he says that based on his years of experience, he’s merely offering a structure that any manager or employee can customize to suit their needs.

“I don’t expect everyone to agree [with the approaches], just as we probably wouldn’t agree on how to raise each other’s children,” he points out. “Every case is a little different. But the structure here is the key. You may not agree with the guilt-versus-anger paradigm or perception management, but generally speaking, these rules will get better results than to just avoid, avoid and avoid.”


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