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Begin with a situation that happens all the time: for whatever reason, an employee has trouble managing his or her feelings, it spills out, and begins affecting customer service. 

You’re the supervisor. 

Like any supervisor, you were looking forward to teamwork, cooperation, creativity, mutual support, and you were hoping you’d never have an unpleasant conversation with an employee, let alone have to fire anyone. 

It’s hard because most new supervisors worry about pulling rank, or being seen as the type that needs or enjoys exercising “power.” Some newbies worry that ever having to assert authority will be seen as a kind of failure that says bad things about their managerial skills. 

Despite those hopes, there’s no getting around it – something is occurring, and a basic workplace axiom is: if you think there’s a problem, you’re right.

So what now? Of course, you should be careful, want to get it right, certainly not make anything worse. And that’s the obvious reason you don’t want to just stumble into an unplanned conversation, loaded with bits of data and pieces of facts, and filled with strong emotions – running both ways. Avoid that at all costs.

So, yes it’s good not to jump the gun, but that can run you right into another axiom – and this one is thoroughly road tested: good managers head toward problems, they don’t look away.

Despite what you may have heard, problems rarely just work themselves out in today’s workplaces. So please don’t be passive. The employees are watching.

Workplaces are mini-cultures. The employees assume a supervisor knows what’s going on unless he or she doesn’t want to know. Everyone’s looking to see how you handle the situation – and yourself. Mostly they’re rooting for an outcome without turmoil and hard feelings, but they know that’s not always realistic.

Assume you’ll be nervous, but don’t worry about it. You don’t have to be perfect. Take some time to prepare. Be composed. Never go into a meeting angry. Remember, it’s not about you, and you haven’t been let down personally. You’re having the conversation because a problem has been identified, and you’re responsible for the “work product” coming from your area. It’s about the work.

So, it’s your meeting. The door is closed, obviously. You’re not rude, the tone is friendly and civil, but there’s no need for chit-chat. Get right to the reason why you’re both there. The most important thing is to state clearly what the problem is – work performance.

Use simple, clear language, give concrete examples, and explain what makes it a problem. Give the employee a chance to respond, but not to argue or filibuster. You want to be crystal clear about what improved performance will look like, and then give a reasonable timeframe for it to occur. It’s very important to convey that you want the employee to succeed, but you do that best by being clear about what you need. Wrap up the meeting, assuring the employee that there will be both help and follow-up.

That follow-up is crucial. If employees see that you’re around, aware of what’s happening, head toward problems, but they also know that your first instinct is to support and be helpful, it makes addressing workplace problems much, much easier.

Nice people can be great supervisors. It’s all going to be OK.