HR Tip Of The Month: Delivering Tough Messages

Managers, including those in HR, must sometimes be the ones to share a hard truth with an employee. Tough conversations come with the territory and are an unavoidable reality of the workplace. How can you take the sting out of potentially difficult workplace discussions?

In the June 16 issue of Human Resource Executive, Mark McGraw interviewed Mark Murphy, author of Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages, who says these discussions don't have to be so difficult. In fact, Murphy says that HR can help create a work environment where transparency and the truth are welcome.

How much of a problem is truth when it comes to those tough discussions? A survey conducted for the book found that nine out of 10 employees and managers are reluctant or struggle to speak the truth.

In the article, Murphy talks about “perspective taking” as powerful way to get people “plugged in and listening” when managers have difficult news to share with employees. Murphy says 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, he recommends that the manager 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, Murphy says, 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.

Murphy points out that HR has a great set of skills to model this behavior for other people in the organization because generally HR is very good at getting into question mode as opposed to lecturing mode.

The article also discusses the four forms of “truth resistance” and what an employee or manager can do to help a co-worker or team member recognize the sometimes difficult truth.

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