It’s not uncommon for managers to avoid difficult conversations with their people. But we all know that a failure to address issues clearly and directly can risk the continuation of potentially damaging behaviour.
Obvious examples are persistent lateness at work or a failure to follow health and safety procedures.
Another example is the sustained effort required for continuous improvement. In this context, there’s a need to reduce variation in process performance to create stable and repeatable processes that guarantee high quality product and/or service delivery.
Achieving this stage will have been a journey hard won in time and cash. The application of lean tools will signify the arrival of standardisation, a prerequisite for continuous improvement. But what happens if people don’t adhere to the processes they’ve been trained to follow?
Our research shows that managers have two broad strategies for dealing with failure to adhere. The first is to ignore it, either completely or they wait for a good time to raise it; the second is to go in hard and punish. These strategies reflect deep-seated underlying preferences for managing conflict. The first allows (often tacitly) for non-compliant behaviour to continue, undermining weeks of solid investment in trying to create new ways of working; the second heightens resentment, diminishes relationships and ultimately affects performance.
In fact, what managers need to do well is admonish. Admonish – an old-fashioned word, more frequently found in the novels of Charles Dickens – means to re-establish boundaries or to correct. This is done calmly, factually, clearly and with an understanding of the offending individual’s limitations.
There is no punishment in admonishment (“Fail to do that again and I’ll have your…”); there is no delay (“I need to talk to you about something, are you free tomorrow?”); and, in particular, there is no sarcasm (“Good grief Tony, you actually managed to get one right!”).
When we admonish, we keep it simple, we deal with the issue immediately and we encourage the individual to take ownership of the need for adherence. Done well, this style of dialogue takes just a few minutes, deepens respect in the workplace and is learnable inside an hour. Taking it from a technique to a work of art takes practice, increased tolerance and often a little courage, but the results are significant in terms of hard benefit and employee engagement.