I am often asked what’s the hardest part of being a manager and my response is always, “having to have ‘the talks.'”  I’m referring to those difficult conversations that no one likes having, but are necessary in order to improve performance, service, morale, attitude or any other host of issues that need to be brought to someone’s attention.  It is a lousy thing to have to give someone negative feedback, but with practice and time it gets easier.

The problem is though, as managers we are entrusted with the contents of these discussions.  We are expected to not speak about the details with other people who are not directly involved.  We are expected to maintain our staff’s privacy.  In my opinion it is one of the basic tenets of good management and professionalism.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work both ways.

We have all worked in places and/or with colleagues who talk about everything. They spread their own business and sometimes the business of others around.  This is their choice and if they want people to know what is happening, then it is on them.  The problem that arises is the very same one that happens in schoolyards everywhere: the story never stays the same and becomes something very different and sometimes much worse than what it actually was.

Managers do not have the luxury of stepping in and correcting inaccurate details when they overhear them.  We can not make announcements “setting the record straight.”  We can not and should not participate in conversations about discussion we’ve had with our staff.  Consequently, a lot of misinformation gets passed along as fact.  We may seem like we are ignoring problems.  We may be described as “disinterested.”  But that is far from the truth.  Actually we are treating you professionally and maintaining your privacy.

If you’re like me, someone who has a difficult time allowing misrepresentations of what I’ve said persist in my non-work life, knowing that this may be happening and recognizing that you can’t do anything about it is one of the most difficult pills to swallow.  But you do because it is the right thing to do and because you recognize how destructive this can be and you don’t want to add to the problem.

Good managers maintain professionalism even when it’s the last thing they want to do.  Ideally this would work both ways, but in reality it doesn’t.  Good managers keep working to get to that ideal place.

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When I Can’t Be Transparent

September 6, 2007

I am in full support of the transparent library concept and try to apply the ideas into my management style. I am a huge fan of open communication and the encouragement of discussion. I also like the focus on trend spotting as a means of innovation and improvement. I encourage my staff to come to me or their supervisors with ideas for improvement and with problems or issues that they encounter in their daily work.

However, I have noticed a similarity in the one on one conversations I have been having as of late and I am wondering how other people in my shoes have handled this.

I am having a lot of discussions about what can generally be described as personnel or performance issues. I am pretty positive that in the working world the complaint or sentiment of, “I work harder/faster/better/more than so and so” is universal, and while that is not the entire message I am hearing from staff, it is a part of it. I think the basic disgruntledness I am hearing has to do with issues that they perceive as not being dealt with or are being allowed to persist. It goes without saying that these issues are all personnel and performance in nature, so therein lies the rub.

How can I be transparent in my communication with my staff when the nature of such issues requires my discretion?

I was kind of joking around this week and remarking that I should send a mass email out on a weekly basis listing, in detail, everyone infractions and what type of reprimand they received. I am pretty sure that would cause a revolt.

I take staff privacy extremely seriously and do not share the details of their performance with anyone who does not have to know (namely each other). I respect everyone’s privacy, but I can understand how since no one knows the intimate details, they may assume that nothing is happening.

So how do you reassure while being discrete? I have my list of non-committal stock answers that I have been using and it seems to assuage each situation, but I wonder if there is something else I should be doing.

When it comes to reprimanding or better yet, addressing and working to change poor performance or work habits the responsibility is really on the individual to change. My responsibility is to address the issue and then to follow-up as necessary. If the performance does not improve there are definite paths I can take with noticeable outcomes.

But it is really that beginning and middle time in that spectrum where it seems really nebulous to everyone and it can seem like nothing really has been done and no changes are being made.

I place privacy and discretion on a higher rung than transparency. I guess this may be a battle that has no clear winner?