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Talking the Talk

It's a dirty job, but every senior manager has to have tough talks with subordinates. Here's how to do it better.
Lisa YoonSeptember 19, 2002

For most managers, having The Talk—delivering bad news to an underperforming subordinate—is, well, bad news. An already unpleasant conversation, if handled poorly, will not only not convey the desired message but also could damage the relationship with the employee. Negative feedback delivered badly can stir feelings of mistrust or animosity, or undermine the employee’s respect for you, the boss.

The good news: help is on the way. In the September edition of the Harvard Business Review, Jean-Francois Manzoni of Insead, in Fontainbleau, France, examines how and why these conversations go wrong so often—and offers strategies for a more productive talk.

Whenever we have to make a decision, says Manzoni, we frame the situation—that is, consciously or not, we put it in a context. It’s how managers frame a situation that determines whether a conversation goes well or doesn’t.

According to Manzoni, managers tend to frame difficult situations and decisions rigidly. Their way of looking at a situation is narrow, without allowing for alternative views. It’s also usually binary; that is, allowing for only two possible outcomes—win or lose. And those decisions are generally frozen—unchanging throughout the conversation, regardless of what direction the conversation takes.

It’s easy to see how a manager can botch a conversation by going in with immovable, preconceived views. Such an approach prevents the manager from listening to alternatives views, causing friction.

But the common alternative is also a common pitfall. Many managers try to “ease in” to such conversations—they try to avoid confrontations by getting the subordinate to see things their way through a carefully designed set of questions. This is a risky tactic: while there’s a chance it will work, many managers don’t plan for what happens when the conversation doesn’t follow the script.

So what does happen? Usually the relationship is damaged by the employee’s perception that the boss didn’t give feedback honestly, or worse, is manipulative.

One reason these interactions happen too often—even among managers who excel in other leadership areas—is what Manzoni calls the “fundamental attribution error.” In plain English, bosses tend to overestimate the effect of a person’s personality or ability while underestimating the impact of the specific conditions under which the employee is working. They tend to think, “Tom is a control freak and doesn’t know how to delegate” rather than considering alternatives: perhaps Tom’s underlings aren’t skilled enough to take on more.

So what, then, is the right approach? According to research, people tend to accept feedback better when they get the sense that the person giving the feedback is reliable and has good intentions. They also want to feel that the feedback was developed fairly; that is, the boss has all the relevant information, allows the employee to clarify, and is consistent in evaluating the employee’s work. Finally, employees need to feel the conversation itself is fair: that the boss is listening, and respects and supports the employee.

Lukoil CFO Abduction: Update

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