June 26, 2013

Speaking at Face Value: To Build Ties With Employees, Speak Honestly

Awhile back, an employee at one of my client firms was becoming a problem. He had been a good employee for most of the two years he’d been with the firm, but then he started frequently calling in sick, and coming in later and later, looking tired and was having a hard time focusing on his work. The owner-advisor talked to him a couple of times, but his behavior didn’t change. Finally, the advisor called me to say he wanted to fire his employee. 

I suggested that instead, he try one more approach: what I call “speaking at face value.” Instead of just “talking to the employee,” and pointing out the problem once again, I asked my client to tell the employee how he really felt about the situation, as he did to me on the phone; not in an angry or overly emotional way, but openly and honestly. He agreed to try one more time. So, the advisor asked his employee into his office, and here’s what he said: “I’m angry about your behavior. I’m angry because I care about you, and because you’re letting me down. You have an important role in the success of our firm. And we need to be able to depend on you. Do you want to be undependable? Go home and think about what kind of member of this firm you want to be, tell me tomorrow what you’ve decided.”

The employee responded that he didn’t want to leave, he wanted to stay at work—and that he had broken up with his girlfriend and was struggling emotionally, but he wanted to get his life together,and to be a dependable member of the firm. The advisor told him that he was still a little angry, but that he could go back to work. Then the advisor went to lunch, thought about what the employee had said, and came back, to tell him that he wasn’t angry anymore, and was proud of him for staying at work. Now he’s the best employee we’ve ever had at that firm. 

Understand that I’m not talking about employers venting their emotions on their employees; just the opposite. I’ve found that the vast majority of owner/employee emotional outbursts are the result of keeping emotions inside coupled with high stress until they finally explode. That never helps anyone. A far better approach is to admit our feelings about a situation and explain why we feel that way. This invites the other person to do the same, and leads to a mutual understanding. 

In the story above, by speaking at face value—or saying exactly what you feel from the heart—the owner- advisor got his employee to speak at face value as well. By being open and honest about how they saw the situation and what they felt about it, it enabled them to find a moment of connection—to really understand each other. That allowed them to see that they wanted the same things, and what they needed from each other.

An employer’s role is to expect certain things from employees, such as dependability and good performance, and to care about their well-being. An employee’s role is to do their job to the best of their ability, to help their co-workers, to contribute to the success of the firm and to expect the firm to support them to succeed. By being honest about those roles and expectations, owners and employees can almost always create good working relationships and build great firms. Speaking at face value removes the communication gaps. It eliminates the need to mind read or assume or simply hold your emotions inside. 

If you find that speaking at face value is something that’s hard for you to do (the vast majority of people I have worked with find it difficult to say what they really think in a nice way) then try this for practice. When someone asks you, “How are you today?” quit saying, “Okay” or “Fine.” Start saying how it is and see how they react (most people react in a positive way). For example, when my husband comes home from work and I ask him how his day was and he answers “Okay” or “Fine” I simply assume it is okay and/or fine and walk away. None of this [said in a whining wife voice], “Was it really okay? Are you really fine? Are you sure?” It took about two times for me to show him that speaking in nothing less than face value was acceptable to me. 

Now when I ask him the question, I get the honest answer and so does he and thus, we solve the problem quite quickly, eliminating the whole emotional baggage that comes with not saying it like it is. I promise, if you speak at face value and take things at face value in your life with your employees, clients, friends and family you will have deeper, connected and committed relationships.

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