Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When being a good boss means asking awkward questions and sharing negative feedback

Posted in job search and career development, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on March 7, 2011

Supervisors and managers get to do a wide range of things that they find personally and professionally rewarding, and that is all for the good. But being an effective manager also means taking on and completing tasks and responsibilities that are a lot less desirable too, and in following through on them and completing them with the same energy and focus. This can and sometimes does include laying people off, but here I am going to focus on a much more common situation where you may have to take positive action to bring tasks back on track, and where you have to deal with the specific employees who are hands-on responsible for them if you are to do that.

I offer this posting with a goal of helping you to more effectively deal with problems and issues that too many managers and supervisors simply try setting aside, noting up-front that that approach never makes problems go away. At best it can simply render solutions to them pointless. And a failure to act here can in fact leave you with no choice but to lay-off or fire an employee at a later date where that could have been avoided but for more proactive action on your part.

• Sometimes you have to face difficult situations and ask awkward questions, and sometimes you need to be blunt and to offer negative feedback, if you are to be an effective manager.

Listen to the people who report to you. Listen to the stakeholders who your team works with and supports. Where possible, listen to end-users and customers and seek out feedback from them. Effective management means knowing the impact of your efforts and of the efforts achieved by the members of your team. Effective management also means knowing when there are disconnects, schedule problems, quality control issues and other problems that need correcting.

Go to the people who are hands-on responsible for the products, services or process steps that appear to be off-course and failing and ask them what is happening that could cause this. The ultimate cause of difficulty in this may be beyond their control, with for example increased difficulty for them to get the resources they need to do their jobs. But this still indicates a problem in what these employees are doing if you have to find out about this because schedules have already slipped, quality of work has gone down or both. Effective team members keep you informed so you can manage proactively, and in finding work-arounds to problems where necessary and possible. When you have to tackle problems reactively, that capability is already lost to you and your entire team suffers as a result.

• Mentoring and supervising your team members can mean telling them where they need to make improvements. This is a time to set aside any emotions you may be feeling and especially where it would be easy to simply pass along the anger and concern that you may have been on the receiving end of, coming to you from stakeholders and others who feel dissatisfaction. Focus on what can be done in the here and now, and in using this situation as a learning opportunity for doing better next time. And be specific and very clear on what you want to see done, and by when.
• Working with stakeholders can mean telling them that some of what they want may not be possible, at least according to their ideal time frame. Once again, this calls for calm reasoning and the setting aside of your own emotions where they may be offering up more than enough of that for both of you in a conversation – especially if they feel pressured. Focus on finding a realistic, mutually accepted compromise on schedules and related delivery details if necessary and work to meet them or even improve upon them, actually delivering as good as or better than promised.
• Listen to your customers and seek to meet their needs and priorities and according to their schedules. But keep it realistic and once again, always strive to deliver on what you agree to and promise to them, or to do a step better than what was offered and agreed to. Deliver and over-deliver and really work to never miss deadlines and under-deliver. And that brings me back to the problems I cited earlier of learning about developing problems after the fact when only a reactive response is possible.

And as a final thought here, effective management means working with your team so as to limit the likelihood that the types of problems I write of here might develop. But with time they can, do and will happen anyway. This posting is about facing and dealing with them head-on and in having the conversations and conducting the follow through needed to get back on track again.

I will probably have more to say about this in a future posting. I am including this as a supplemental posting to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development and in Business Strategy and Operations.

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