If you have ever received a highly personal verbal attack from a boss, you know how embarrassing, demoralizing, emotionally traumatic, and infuriating that can be. It’s even worse if it was done in public If you have spent any time talking with subordinates who have had these experiences — and I have logged many hours in such conversations — you know the damage personal, demeaning, and abusive verbal attacks can do to an individual’s self-confidence, workplace morale, and human spirit. No wonder so many employees search the web for advice on dealing with an abusive boss.
What the best managers know is that personally demeaning or attacking a subordinate, whether in public or in private, is never OK. Consequently, they never do it.
I will leave it to the psychologists and psychiatrists to explain why certain individuals — managers and non-managers — do this to others. I will simply say that as a manager, nothing you encounter in the behavior or performance of one of your subordinates is sufficient to justify making your response personal or abusive.
To be sure, subordinates can at times drive a manager crazy. After all, they are just people so they make mistakes, repeat the same mistakes, forget things, frustrate your plans and goals, fall short of your expectations, behave in inexplicable ways, fail to meet the simplest requirements, and occasionally — no matter how hard you work with them — prove to be unsuited for their jobs.
Because you as a manager are human as well, the above subordinate behavior will frequently elicit a predictable range of negative feelings and emotions in response: stress, frustration, anger, incredulity, astonishment, and perhaps even something close to rage from time to time. It can be very hard not to let such feelings out when they overwhelm you but the best managers have learned the importance of controlling the time, place, method, and format of their response. This is perhaps one of the most important elements of self-management that a manager must achieve.
As I have written elsewhere, the time for delivering critical feedback to a subordinate is as close to the precipitating event as possible — immediately if you can — because it remains fresh in both your minds. But when you find yourself feeling overly emotional and upset, it should also be after you have cooled down and can focus on the specific behavior or event, not just on the individual and how you feel. While how you feel matters to you, what must be corrected matters more to your organization. A simple “let’s talk later” may give you the breathing space you need to get your response right.
As for place, it’s simple: never in public. No matter what a subordinate has done, the humiliation and embarrassment that accompanies a public flogging is never justified. Assuming you wish others to know that certain things are unacceptable, trust me they will get that message even when you critical conversation with a subordinate is behind closed doors. Subordinates have a way of knowing when a colleague has had a talking to.
The method for critical feedback should always be in person, direct and verbal. While this may seem obvious, many managers have difficulty giving direct, specific, critical feedback because they fear the uncomfortable emotions that often accompany such situations. But as author Joseph Grenny points out in his book “Crucial Conversations”, issues not talked out are invariably acted out. Harsh looks, avoidance behavior, excessive micromanagement, or frequent sarcastic remarks directed at a subordinate can be just as demeaning as a harsh personal attack.
Finally, the format for critical feedback should always focus on the behavior or event itself that necessitates the conversation and not on the individual and his or her personality, intelligence, basic competence or value as a person, or assumed motivation and cause. What you know is what you saw or have verified, and the reason it is unacceptable in your workplace. It is your job as a manager to insist that subordinates meet widely agreed upon standards for performance and behavior and to require them to take the necessary corrective action. It is not your job to judge in any way an individual’s basic value as a person.
Because this series of articles is designed for managers, I have focused on what managers should and should not do when they must be critical of a subordinate’s performance or behavior. But what do you do as a subordinate when you feel you are being confronted in an abusive way? On this subject there are far better experts than I but I have always counseled three suggestions.
First, remember that the manager being abusive is the one with the larger problem not you. Secondly, personal abuse does not solve any problem, is irrational, and can not be argued with. Do not try or respond in kind. Finally, it is perfectly permissible for you to walk away indicating that you are prepared to listen only when he or she has cooled down and is willing to discuss the actual problem and not your inadequacy as a human being.