August 29, 2016
I've coached a number of executives who had continual but unfounded harassment complaints from employees. It wasn't actual harassment, but the employees didn't know what else to call it, and so they used those popular buzz words in order to get their own or HR's managers' attention. Unfortunately, those words do work to galvanize everyone into action and to produce the resulting investigations and predictable findings and training. 
Most of the time, these complaints do not rise to the level of harassment because they don't involve different treatment of a protected class and the behavior is not severe or pervasive. What they do involve is a manager with poor people skills or poor conflict management skills, and especially, the inability to deliver legitimate management messages with the right timing and tone.

"Most of us don't think about timing and tone 
when we're preparing to have a critical discussion"

Most of us don't think about timing and tone when we're preparing to have a critical discussion. If we talk to someone when we're rushed, or worse, over email or text, we can't soften the tone of the discussion. If we erupt in anger -- without taking the time to calm down first -- we're likely to just create upset and paranoia in the employee, rather than creating the results we want.
Many of the executives I've coached are energetic and involved people. They're passionate about what they do. When they want to communicate their concern to an employee about his or her behavior, they raise their voices, wave their hands, stand up, pace and lean forward. They're shocked to learn that employees over whom they have power are intimidated by their demeanor and feel harassed.

What Should You Do?
If you're a manager or executive who recognizes yourself in the above description, or if you coach these kinds of leaders, I would suggest the following:
  • Unless it's an employee issue that requires immediate attention (violence, theft, ongoing harassment), it can wait.  Take the time to think about the approach and plan the communication before you deliver it. If you're angry, go for a run, talk to your priest or therapist, your significant other or your best friend to vent.
  • Lean back, literally.  Employees feel intimidated if you're leaning over them, if you're taller, or if you're standing up and they're sitting down. Take a deep breath and calm down.
  • Use your inside voice.  Your mother and your teachers were right about this one.
  • Watch what you're doing with your hands.   An open body position is best. Hands on the arms of your chair or laced on your desk would signal openness and trust.
  • Be curious.  I'm frequently puzzled and confused by the world and by human behavior so this one comes naturally to me but try to understand the employee's point of view first. If you understand why they did what they did, you might have a different perspective on what you're about to say. Let them talk before and after you speak.

Did You Know?

All of our training for managers on conflict, basic management skills and challenging conversations includes sessions on how to talk so that employees hear your message and so that organizations avoid unnecessary complaints.  
 For more information, call or write us at: 303-216-1020 or [email protected]

Be sure to read Lynne's helpful books on how to handle tough conversations and how to handle conflict. 

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