Delivering Tough Messages

In Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages, Mark Murphy offers insight into how to take the sting out of potentially difficult workplace discussions. 

Monday, June 19, 2017
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Even the most seasoned, tactful manager doesn't look forward to confronting an employee about his or her poor performance. No employee wants to hear that they're not pulling their weight on the job.

But, like it or not -- and most probably not -- such tough conversations come with the territory, and are an unavoidable reality of the workplace.

Mark Murphy, however, says these discussions don't have to be so difficult. In Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages, he offers some guidance on how to make sharing uncomfortable truths easier for all parties in the workplace. In an exclusive interview with Human Resource Executive® Staff Writer Mark McGraw, Murphy -- founder of Atlanta-based best-practices research and leadership training firm Leadership IQ -- shares some tips on how HR can help create a work environment where transparency and the truth are welcome.

In a survey you conducted in association with your new book Truth at Work, you found that nine out of 10 employees and managers are reluctant or struggle to speak the truth. What sort of factors do you see contributing to that figure?

What was most interesting about that finding was that, in the survey, we asked people why they were hesitant [about being truthful in workplace conversations]. And the No. 1 response we got was that people were afraid of the [other person involved in the discussion] not taking it well. They were afraid of getting a bad reaction.

That answer speaks to a couple issues. Most people are not particularly well-trained in how to deliver tough messages. When we put people in leadership roles, we typically don't train them in [how to have difficult conversations]. So, one of the major competencies that a manager is going to need is something that they're rarely going to have the skills for -- it has to be practiced and developed.

Another factor playing into this finding is that, right now, things are a bit different than they were, say, 10 years ago. The world has changed. Look at the news media or flip on the TV. Everything is designed to instigate more than it is to alleviate. A major problem -- whether it's Facebook, cable news, etc. -- is that there's so much designed to capture eyeballs and attention that a lot of folks are losing the ability to speak in a calm way that increases understanding. It's like we're being trained to instigate.

What are the four forms of "truth resistance" that you discuss in Truth at Work, and what can an employee or a manager do to help a co-worker or team member recognize the (sometimes difficult) truth? 

The four forms that we identified are psychological resistance, financial resistance, perceptual resistance and confident unawareness.

Psychological resistance is the defensiveness we naturally experience when someone tells us something that is at odds with what we believe about ourselves. For example, if someone tells you you're not a hard worker when you think you are, that's a hard thing to hear.

In terms of financial resistance, it's difficult to get someone to understand something when his or her salary depends on not understanding it, as Upton St. Clair said.

Imagine a conversation that involves an executive at a call center, and another executive who's in charge of customer service/satisfaction. The topic is customer care. The call-center executive might be incentivized to fit in as many calls in a day as possible, whereas the customer-service executive is saying, "You know, our service is better when customer calls are longer." They don't disagree because they hate each other. It's just that they have different goals and motivations in their jobs.

Similarly, perceptual resistance is just the fact that people see situations differently. There's no accounting for taste. We'll show a secret shopper video to managers and tell them to evaluate the employee in the video. Some will say the worker provided extraordinary service, while others will say it's the worst. One opinion means no less than the other. They just see the world in very different ways.

Lastly, there's confident unawareness. Essentially, this means that some people who aren't good at something lack the ability to know they aren't good at it. A classic example is when people are asked to rate their level of emotional intelligence. You have a group that says their emotional intelligence is fantastic. Then they're given an objective test, and a lot of them do terribly. Their scores are in the 10th percentile. But, because these folks didn't really understand what emotional intelligence looked like, they wandered the world thinking they possessed this great ability. It's ironic, but, in the workplace, when people are better trained, they're more likely to not be affected by this unawareness. 

In Truth at Work, you talk about the heavy toll that operating in a "truth-free" environment takes on an organization's work culture -- feedback is ignored, jealousy and ill will festers among employees, and managers fear getting sued, for instance. What can HR leaders do to help employees and managers feel more comfortable with speaking freely and openly on the job?

Another study we conducted has uncovered a big problem. We asked people if they knew if their performance was where it should be. Only 29 percent of the employees we surveyed said they always know [the answer]. Another 14 percent said they frequently know, and the rest said either "rarely," "never" or "occasionally."

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It's going to be difficult to have candid conversations about anything if people don't know their expectations [on the job]. There has to be transparency. So, one of the first things that an HR leader can do to tackle this problem is to make expectations clear so that everybody knows the story when it comes to their performance.

HR can also focus on sharing the company's reality with employees. When we do surveys of organizations, one of the questions we'll often ask is, "Do your employees feel that the organization openly shares the challenges facing it?"

A lot of companies don't do a good job of that, and the reality is that it starts at the top. If a company sees that leaders don't talk about the tough stuff, or that they blame others when they do talk about it, then you have a problem.

Say, for example, that a CEO sends a letter to employees saying that the company would be doing better if not for the current economy ... . When leaders do that, they actually start to tell employees that assigning blame is OK; that not being honest about reality is OK and that you should always try to spin the truth.

Managers, including those in HR, must sometimes be the ones to share a hard truth with an employee. You describe "perspective taking" as a powerful way to get people "plugged in and listening" when you have difficult news to share with them. What exactly is perspective taking, and how would a manager utilize this technique to make a difficult conversation a bit easier and more fruitful for all parties?

It begins with just acknowledging that the other person might not see the world the same way that you do.

Too many managers start a conversation about an employee's performance by making a speech. Instead, pause for a minute and say to the employee, "Could you share your perspective with me?" Before launching into a diatribe, a manager can turn this into more of an actual discussion.

One of the big "a-ha moments" for some managers is when they realize it's unlikely that they're going to lecture someone into great performance. The only way you're going to do it is to engage employees conversationally.

For example, a manager having a tough conversation with a team member can ask the employee to state his or her position, and then state it back to them. A manager can say something along the lines of, "OK, I just want to make sure I have the facts right." We call it structured listening. It tends to calm people down and also reveals where possible logical flaws lie; simply by illuminating the problem.

HR, by the way, has a great set of skills to model this behavior for other people in the organization, frankly. Generally, HR is very good at getting into question mode as opposed to lecturing mode.



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