A Publication of WTVP

One of the most important parts of being a manager or enterprise leader is to communicate clearly to others in a timely fashion. It’s also one of the most elusive qualities of leadership, especially from the standpoint of those who work with him or her. There are two times when clear communication is at a premium: confrontation and change.

Employees want managers who will confront them about the areas where they need to improve their work, and how to do it. They want this feedback delivered in a fair, respectful, and direct manner. Few people want to be told where they’re falling short or what they’re doing wrong in the job. But most people would rather be told person to person, and in a way that will help them to do their job better in a specific manner.

Confrontation sounds harsh, emotional, and punitive. At its root, though, the word means "with directness" or "with direction." Effective confrontation occurs when truth is told in a fair and non-emotional way, and provides a path towards a solution. The ethical problem in confrontation is when the manager does it in a way that dehumanizes the person receiving the correction.

How are people dehumanized? One way is when the manager avoids confrontation with the individual needing the correction and gives general criticism. This pattern happens a lot in workplaces. Let’s say one person habitually is 15 minutes late to work. Just about everyone else in the department is on time. It’s a poor ethical practice to write a memo to the entire department demanding that everyone come to work on time. The people who aren’t causing a problem are penalized for something they didn’t do, and the person who needs to hear the correction doesn’t get the fact that the message is for him or her.

Another dehumanizing practice is to provide correction only in the annual written evaluation, perhaps as a way to keep down the numbers of "exceeds expectations" and to keep raises to a minimum. What’s wrong with this practice? Two things: the fact that the manager’s correction came long after the problem was identified (and after it could be corrected) and the timing is designed to meet budget objectives-not employee improvement.

Two other manager favorites guaranteed to lower employee trust and morale include giving an employee a stern and cold correction via e-mail or, alternately, to make a scene in front of the employee so he or she knows who’s in charge.

So what’s involved in a humane, ethical confrontation? First, the correction is personal, directed to the individual needing correction. Secondly, it is related to performance, dealing with the problem first and then the personality. Then, it’s participative, asking the employee for input, comment, and correction. Finally, it’s workable, oriented to solutions that can be measured and documented. Again, the employee may not want correction, but at least there’s clarity, accountability, and humanity in this approach.

Another area of poor communication with ethical consequences is in change management. In this time of downsizing and cost-cutting, any change understandably puts employees on edge. When employers are uncommunicative about planning or anticipated change, then employees become more anxious and more prone to act out or become paralyzed in their work.

Part of the problem in change management is managers typically are involved in the beginning of the change. They often identify problems, develop strategies, and create measurable objectives. Because they’re involved, they think everyone is involved. At some point the objective appears: Discuss changes with employees. To those driving the change, the process is finished and everyone is signed on. To employees, the change is new and threatening. Managers wonder why employees are so negative, and employees wonder why managers are so out of touch.

An essential ethical practice is to communicate early any changes or strategies that involve employee livelihood to those who’re going to be effected. An even better approach is to solicit employee involvement in planning. They know a lot about problem solving, cost overruns, management lapses, and perhaps even competitive challenges. Besides, they’ll have to carry out any program or initiative involved in change implementation-or, at the minimum, suffer the consequences of change.

It’s a humane and smart business practice to gain employee involvement to secure employee investment in the outcome. If the objective of the change process is to close an office or facility, then don’t go through the pretense of planning and change management. Say straightforwardly, "We’re closing the plant here," and do what it takes to ensure employees have the tools they need to bring about a successful closure and the necessary change.

Clear, consistent communication goes a long way to helping people who work in businesses and enterprises feel as if they are, in fact, a valuable part of the team, and that their work, knowledge, and opinion really matter. Ethical communication is a fundamental element in business excellence and an approach to put into practice today. IBI