Jonathan pointed me to this article in Management Today. It’s a couple of months old now but if I hadn’t seen it, chances are a lot of others haven’t either.
It’s called Death of the Bollocking and it’s a complaint about the reluctance to tackle shoddy performance with explicit criticism. Regular readers will know that a similar theme recurs in some of my blog posts. While I would not advocate Gordon Ramsay style verbal assaults, people sometimes need to be told in no uncertain terms that they have messed up.
This paragraph struck a chord:
But beware the beguiling concept of balanced feedback, where every negative is countered with a positive. This sort of spurious balance isn’t a good thing when what you want to deliver is unambiguously bad news.
Let’s say that you call James in and what you want to tell him is that his work on project X has been very poor. Instead, you sit him down and say: ‘James, we were really pleased with the way you dealt with presentation Y, but project X wasn’t so good.’ As a result, James takes away a mixed and confused message. Has he been good or bad? He doesn’t really know.
It’s the old Shit Sandwich Approach. Tell them something nice to soften them up, hit them with the bad stuff then say something nice at the end to try and make it better. It’s a really bad way to deliver a hard message. Often, the thing that you want the person to hear gets so sugared up with the nice stuff that he or she completely misses the point. It’s far more effective, though less comfortable, to just make your point then use the rest of the meeting time to deal with the fallout and agree some remedial action.
This bit amused me too:
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational studies at Lancaster University, says the managerial problem is twofold. First, there are legal issues. ‘We do have a lot of HR laws in this country and if I tell you you’re crap, I’m going to be kind of worried about the implications.’ This kind of thing is seen at its worst in the public sector, where there is the well-known phenomenon of ‘vexatious litigators’ – people who claim some kind of ‘ism’ every time their managers do something they don’t like and who have become virtually impossible to sack. And, even in the private sector, some feel that once HR gets involved, it can add needless layers of bureaucracy to the simplest dressing-down. One manager notes: ‘Our HR department is like having a little bit of my local authority at work.’
Well get yourselves some decent HR people then. This stuff about employment law and company procedures hampering the disciplinary process is true up to a point but a lot of the time it’s a cop out used by managers who just don’t want the aggro of dealing with poor performance. “Hey, I think Fred is a waste of space too and I’d love to sack him but, y’know, employment law, HR and all that, my hands are tied.”
Far from stopping managers from dealing with poor performers, a good HR executive will encourage them to do so. Sometimes that can upset their cosy little world too. A friend of mine was given HR responsibility for a department and shocked everyone by declaring that they were going to fight all the grievances and stop settling tribunal cases out of court. Even the ‘isms’ were tackled head on. It worked. Soon people began to realise that raising grievances or taking the organisation to court was not an easy way of getting money for doing nothing. It was a hard slog and it took a while but eventually the message got through and the grievance culture was broken.
It’s not necessary to shout at people to get your point across about unsatisfactory performance but sometimes you do need to be clear and firm and to confront issues before they get out of hand. In my experience, the people who rant and rave at their staff are often those who have avoided dealing with issues until they have got out of hand, then their patience snaps and they flip over and bawl people out.
I’m not an advocate of shouting at people but, to be fair, neither is the author of this pro-bollocking article. As he says:
[I]f managers are honest with people and communicate with them frequently, the odd well-meant home truth will be no big deal.
Nor should constructive but forcefully delivered criticism be confused with abusive behaviour. If your honest intention is to deliver a one-off shock to spur somebody on, you are not a bully.
Sometimes you need to confront people and give them hard messages. It’s not pleasant but it saves you a hell of a lot of even greater unpleasantness in the long run.