No Retorts, Please

by Shaun Kieran

 I spend more time than I should stating what should be basic and obvious to supervisors: don’t be overly concerned about having a quick “comeback” when talking to an employee.

Our culture seems to nudge people to respond instantly – no hesitation – for fear of appearing weak.   So when a supervisor speaks to an employee there’s an undercurrent pushing him to be assertive, or else they think they’ve lost a “battle” that will forever cost them.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Huge damage is done when people “reply” to what someone says without thinking first, and it still amazes me how little people learn from the damage done in those encounters.

It’s far, FAR more important to listen, understand, think about what you want to say, say it carefully, and – above all – not say anything you don’t want to say, but might regret later.

I’m not even talking about some obvious, major faux pas. I’m talking about being a little too casual, too judgmental, negative, oppositional, patronizing, authoritarian, etc. – most of which would not be conscious or deliberate, of course, but does tend to happen when irritation and the desire to straighten things out NOW get the upper hand.

Is it the employee who often misinterprets the message coming back? Yes, indeed – in fact, that’s the point. The likelihood of honest mis-perception, as well as willful distortion, is high in workplace exchanges.

There are many reasons for this, most of it inherent in the way people are, and a lot of it is connected to the good old “pecking order” undercurrent between supervisors and employees that’s seldom really acknowledged. Workplace communication is, for better or worse, emotionally “loaded.” Some employees are truly oblivious, while others know exactly what they’re doing.

My point, again and again, is to not play that game! Employees can sense whether you’re listening, or just waiting for them to take a breath so that you can take “control” yourself. It actually conveys both self-assurance and respect for others when you think before you speak – not weakness. Plus it’s remarkable how often the smartest answer is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” 

Workplaces are far more relaxed and productive when the supervisor is comfortable inside his or her skin, doesn’t need to play one-upsmanship with the supervisees, really wants to know and understand what’s going on, and doesn’t need to let everyone know who’s in charge.  They know anyway.

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