Candor and dignity

by Shaun Kieran

Never once have I had a supervisor say to me something like, “I don’t give a hoot about my employee’s dignity.” Even the aggressively tone deaf ones know enough not to be intentionally guilty of such a fundamental faux pas.

But it happens all the time. Why? It usually takes the form of an unplanned, unscripted, in-the-moment conversation ostensibly about a work problem that’s popped up. Some supervisors pride themselves on their candor or directness, see it as an asset, and resist anything that might inhibit the ability to say what they think right in the moment.

They should stop resisting.

The workplace is different. It’s supposed to be about the work, not the relentless pissing contest that characterizes so much of human interaction. Pushed by deadlines, supervisors can be frustrated, impatient, even dismissive of the individuals who bring problems to them. And sometimes supervisors can be made defensive by the way an employee communicates. But nothing justifies a supervisor breaking ranks with the basic obligation to be focused, professional, civil, and in “problem solving” mode.

Humans have always been more fragile and vulnerable to perceived slights and direct criticism than we wish was true, but in our postmodern world it’s especially dangerous to so much as hint at a lack of competence, even when it looks blatantly obvious.

The fundamental distinction is between having as few barriers as possible between you and your own mind about what you really think, as opposed to saying out loud – especially in front of others – what you’re thinking to an employee, without being fully aware of the many implications of that conversation. Most especially, the point is that a supervisor’s fundamental obligation to the work process is to have a productive conversation focusing on work-related goals that might reasonably be achieved.

Some supervisors take too long to get this. This is not pampering or indulging. Valid performance problems must be taken on – sooner rather than later, in fact. But not even remotely embarrassing an employee should be in the supervisor’s bone marrow. Anything else is sensed by employees, and feeds into what they bring to their end of the conversation, the last thing a busy supervisor needs.

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