By Avery Augustine
As a manager, I probably shouldn’t be admitting this. But, in the hope that this will help another less-than-confident supervisor, here it is: I hate confronting employees. I dislike it so much, in fact, that for the majority of my management career, I flat out avoided it.
And that meant that, for a while, my employees got by with sub-par work , disregard for company rules and policies, and minimal professional growth. All because I was too scared to have serious conversations with them about what they needed to do to improve.
What was it exactly that I was scared of? Well, just about everything: I dreaded the awkward “I need to talk to you in private,” conversation starter, feared that I’d be labeled as the “mean boss,” and expected that my employee would lash out at me with snide excuses . And so, I avoided it like the plague.
But when I realized I wasn’t only being unfair to my boss (by not fulfilling my role as a supervisor), but to my employees (who weren’t gaining anything from my leadership), I knew something had to change. So, here are four ways that I changed my actions—and my mindset—to get over my fear of confrontation.
1. Think From Your Employees’ Perspective
OK, so your employees probably aren’t thinking to themselves, “Man, I wish my manager would tell me I’m doing a bad job.” But put yourself in their shoes: Imagine that you’ve been working day in and day out, thinking that everything’s going fine—until your manager comes to you one day and, without warning, announces, “You’ve been underperforming for months, so we have to let you go .”
Pretty unfair, right?
Constructive criticism is never easy to hear, but when it comes down to it, your employees would rather be told—early on—that their work is lacking, rather than be surprised by more harsh action down the road. Simply by realizing that, confrontation becomes a little less intimidating; in the grand scheme of things, you’re helping your team succeed and avoiding bigger problems down the road.
2. Make it Routine
Because I avoided confrontation so adamantly, whenever I asked to speak with someone privately, it was laughably obvious that he or she was in trouble. (It was reminiscent of when someone would knock on your classroom door in elementary school to announce, “Anna, the principal would like to see you,” and the entire class would resound with a chorus of ominous “oohs”). Every pair of eyes in the room would follow my employee and me as we walked away—making it pretty awkward for both of us.
To help make things more comfortable all around, I knew had to make these meetings more standard. So, I set up bi-weekly one-on-ones with each of my direct reports.
The content of each meeting varied widely—sometimes, I doled out praise and compliments ; other times, I simply checked in on a project status. But occasionally, it gave me the chance to practice communicating constructive criticism.
More than anything, the meetings got me and my employees talking on a regular basis, which helped me practice my confrontational skills. (And as a bonus, when a bigger issue arose, my request to meet with an employee didn’t incite such a grand event.)
3. Steel Yourself
Part of my tendency to avoid confrontation stemmed from a fear that once I presented an issue to one of my employees, he or she would simply deny it, argue with me, or make excuses. I didn’t know how to deal with that (besides completely giving in and saying, “OK, try better next time”).
I’ve found that the key to this is preparation: Turns out, confronting someone is easier when you have plenty of documentation to prove your case. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, I’ve noticed you seem a little less productive lately,” which comes across as vague and can garner rebuttals like, “I know—everyone’s workload has been light this week.”
On the other hand, when you have data to back up your points, you can let the information speak for itself . So, maybe you show a decline of the employee’s productivity in comparison to his or her teammates, or compile a few emails from less-than-satisfied clients that he or she has been working with. As long as you have firm examples to point to, you’ll be able to minimize backfire from your employee—and that will make your confrontation a little easier.
4. Realize You’re Not Being “Mean”
One of my early (and most naïve) arguments against confrontation was that I felt like I was being mean toward my employees—like I was nitpicking or micromanaging , or that if I just left it alone, the problem would go away on its own.
But consider this: If your job requires you to turn in a report every Monday, and you don’t turn in a report on Monday, you’re not doing your job. And in that situation, would it be mean or unfair of your manager to sit you down to let you know that missing a deadline is unacceptable? No—in fact, you’d probably expect it .
Sometimes, when I need to confront my employees, I have to remind myself that holding them accountable for their work isn’t mean or unfair; it’s my job. And truthfully, your employees expect—and benefit from—that kind of tough love.
Nothing will be the magic cure to suddenly make you enjoy confrontation. For me, it came down to changing my approach and getting in the right mindset—to realize that I wasn’t being harsh or unfair to my employees by confronting them; I was doing them a disservice by refusing to.
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By Lennox Morrison
John de Koning’s company did something surprising: they decided their number one priority would be the happiness of their staff.
His employer, IT firm Incentro, based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, once operated as a traditional online services provider, with a top-down hierarchy of bosses and employees. But after a market downturn between 2002 and 2005, the management rebooted to become less flashy but more fun; a place where talented, ambitious young professionals would want to work.
Now, all staff are equal and all information about the business is shared. Instead of the usual pyramid structure, people work in independently functioning ‘cells’ – groups of 60 or fewer. As well as organising their own work, they take part in company-wide decisions and even set their own salary. Rather than senior management dictating pay rises, each ‘cell’ or team decides whether they are happy to share salary information. If so, they make a collective decision on what they should earn – based on everyone knowing the full financial picture of the company.
“We decided to introduce just one key performance indicator, and that’s employee happiness,” says de Koning, managing director of Incentro Marketing Technology. By doing so, staff numbers have grown from 40 in 2008 to more than 300 today across four countries, he says.
While structural and organisational changes may not get the pulse racing compared to gourmet lunches or gaming consoles, Incentro’s approach to fostering staff contentment is shared by a growing number of companies – so much so that there’s a burgeoning new niche of happiness-at-work consultants offering to inject joy into the workplace with similar advice.
So is there an outbreak of idealism in the boardroom? Not quite. Research suggests that smiling faces in the office are also good for the company’s bottom line.
There are many benefits to putting happiness at the centre of business and policy decisions, says economist Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School. He points to a 2014 study, which suggests that raising people’s happiness makes them more productive by between 7% and 12%.
In a separate study, researchers took Fortune’s annual list of ‘Best Companies to Work For’ and compared it over time with how peer companies performed on the stock market. They found that the top best-to-work-for firms outperformed the others, and also that investors undervalued the intangibles of employee well-being.
Workers who believe in the mission of their company are happier and more productive, says Economist Jan-Emmanuel De Neve
It’s an important piece of research, says De Neve, because it shows that the potential cost of raising well-being is more than matched by productivity and increased performance. Consultancies offering to perk up the mood in the workplace are targeting a potentially large market. In his work for the United Nations’ latest World Happiness Report De Neve found that fewer than 20% of people worldwide were actively engaged with their job and 20% were actively disengaged.
Active engagement is more than mere satisfaction in a job, or at having a job in the first place, he explains – it is “being positively absorbed by the work you’re doing, identifying with and promoting the mission of the company you’re working for.”
One 2016 UK study tracked tens of thousands of people who recorded their sense of well-being at different times of day on a smartphone app, ranking 39 activities in terms of happiness levels. Of the 39, paid work ranked second from bottom – just above being sick in bed.
So what’s making people so melancholy? Listening to would-be career-switchers, and looking at other studies, it’s about a lack of purpose and meaning in work and a sense that it’s impinging too much on other aspects of life.
When work is a grind
More than 1,000 discontented people have spent £2,000 ($2,570) each to join 12-week courses run by Escape the City, a training and recruitment consultancy based in London and New York. “The courses are designed to help people get unstuck or to start a business,” says co-founder Dominic Jackman.
Typically, participants are aged 27 to 35, the majority are female and employed in corporate roles where they feel their role lacks purpose, says Jackman. Many joined large corporates through grad schemes.
“You work very, very hard. You get paid well. But the notion of a job that makes you feel alive takes a backseat,” he says. Increased life expectancy and higher retirement age mean people’s attitude to work is changing. “You’re going to be working for a long time so let’s enjoy our time at work and make an impact,” says Jackman.
Portfolio freelance careers, remote working as a digital nomad, creating your own start-up and an “impact career” with a purpose-before-profit company are the four most sought-after new paths for his clients, he says. “It’s about making a difference to society, having a purpose and making it more sustainable. People want to work for a company that’s making things better for the world.”
But if changing career tracks isn’t an option, what do people think would brighten their daily grind?
Wages are far less important to happiness at work than issues related to work-life balance and having colleagues’ support and social capital in the workplace, according to De Neve’s analysis of European data. Having variety in the job, learning on the job and having a sense of autonomy and control over what you are doing were also valued, he says.
So what do consultancies propose? For Netherlands-based consultancy Corporate Rebels, which helped Incentro fine-tune their ideas, the approach stems from co-founders Pim de Moree and Joost Minnaar stepping out of corporate life to travel the world collecting pioneering ideas on how to foster a happy workplace.
Corporate Rebels co-founders Joost Minnaar (left) and Pim de Moree quit their corporate jobs to research the world’s most progressive workplaces (Credit: Julie Hallo)
De Moree tells his clients the key to happiness “involves moving from profit to purpose, from hierarchy to a network of teams, from leaders who tell people what to do, to leaders who ask how they can best support [their team], from rules to freedom, from secrecy to transparency.”
From what they have learned from business leaders and entrepreneurs who have put employee happiness centre stage, Corporate Rebels suggest open-book management – where everyone knows the financial and operational details of where they work. Another is results-based working, where it doesn’t matter how many hours you work, as long as you get the right result.
Their stories underpin the data referred to by De Neve about a clear link between staff well-being and financial results.
“The level of well-being of employees ought to be measured systematically and put on page one of the annual shareholders’ report,” he says. “It would send a strong signal about how a company is doing, and how it will be doing in the future.
“There’s a philosophical argument about how looking after staff well-being is the right thing to do, but there are also huge objective benefits.”
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