I learned a little lesson this past weekend about the differences in communication patterns between certain types of people when I got a haircut. Has anyone anywhere at any point in history ever gone to a hairstylist, indicated you want "about a half-inch" trimmed, and then actually had a half-inch trimmed? No, and do you know why? A) Because hairstylists went to school to CUT HAIR, and damn you, they're gonna cut it! None of this partial inch crap for them, and B) The word "about" is a subjective term; it means something different to everyone. What I should have done was taken in a ruler and explained that I was going to measure each hair that was cut against it. If any was longer than one-half an inch, I wasn't going to pay. But I'm not that much of a curmudgeon. Yet.
So let's say you're trying to get across to a team member that something is wrong, and he or she has to take actions to correct it. Your absolute best bet is to bite the bullet, let go of all those touchy-feely conversational props, and just be blunt. Don't say there is an issue, when it's actually a problem. Don't passive-voice yourself into spewing out some nonsense like, "Deadlines have been missed," if the team member is the one missing the deadlines. The world is not going to screech to a halt because you say, "You missed some deadlines," or, "You need to manage your work priorities better." I'm not sure why everyone is so afraid of issuing any kind of negative feedback these days.
I'm not advocating being heartless about it. I'm advocating putting the problem into simple terms so that there is no misinterpretation. Once, as a new manager, I had to tell one of my employees that I wasn't sure what he did with his time all day, that he'd missed deadlines, and that he put his coworkers in a jam by doing so. I tried to soften the blow by saying I thought that he was a good writer. Several days later, I had occasion to speak with him again. I asked him what he recalled from our last conversation, and he said, "That you think I'm a good writer." He just filed all that "bad-vibey" stuff away and focused on what he wanted to hear.
I will concede that this guy had one hell of a defense mechanism, but I was also at fault for not clearly stating the problem and sticking to my guns. I should have spelled out exactly what I expected from him and how I planned to measure his success. It's not an easy speech to deliver, but it's fairer to the employee in the long run.
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.