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The Benefits of Straight Talk

October 21, 2011, 10:00 PM
Topic: Careers

Why do so many American business managers have so much trouble with straight talk:  telling a direct report about a problem with his/her performance? Or telling a peer they have overstepped their boundaries or done something wrong? Telling a candidate why he or she is not being offered the open position? Or even a manager giving himself/herself straight talk, i.e., being honest about their own motives and/or performance? On the other end of the scale are those who are too blunt with their straight talk thus alienating those around them.

I believe that there are several reasons for these inabilities demonstrated by managers; and, of course, it varies by individual. Ever heard the statement “promoted to his/her level of ineptitude”?  Unfortunately, employees who excel in their roles are rightly promoted, but are not supported in that promotion with appropriate development. They are left to handle things as they know best – which might not be the best way to handle things. Being a manager in today’s world takes courage,  strength of conviction and the ability and willingness to deal with conflict, not only in leading the economic and strategic side of the business, but also in managing employees.

First, managers need to learn the act of positive criticism:  how to deliver a negative performance report to an employee in a way that will actually encourage the employee, enabling them to see the opportunity to learn and to perform better, without breaking the employee’s determination and good will. After all, the instance where an employee is purposefully performing poorly is rare – most employees want to do well. Always start by looking for the positive side of the employee’s performance: let them know that there are things they do well by giving them specific examples. Then tell them about the “opportunities for improvement”; assist them on how to get there, but let them find their own way.  You can never expect an employee to mirror your style so you must nurture the employee’s own style.  The alternative strategy; NOT work with the employee on improvement or to slam them with criticism.  This strategy doesn’t help the employee grow, doesn’t help the company, and can be very costly.

Suppose you are in a meeting and a peer takes the opportunity to ask another department to assist you – without asking you first? What do you do? Yell and scream, stomp out of the meeting, announce that you don’t need help, or ignore the whole situation and hope that it never happens again? None of the above is a correct reaction. An overreaction will cause a rift, an under reaction will most likely ensure that it will happen again. Take a deep breath, bite your tongue and immediately after the meeting ask for a private conference with this peer. Use straight talk – ask first if he/she has had an issue with the work performed by your department so that you can appropriately address it, if that is the case. Then you should actually thank the peer for the attempt to assist the department but calmly explain why it was inappropriate: your manager should be making that determination, lack of expertise from the other department, too many cooks in the kitchen, etc. Handling this situation with straight talk will not only decrease the possibility of it happening again but also enable you to collaborate better with this manager in the future. 

Interviewing candidates presents issues to keep in mind as well. If a rejected candidate is good at following-up, they are going to call you to ask for feedback on their interview. Yes, it is easiest to say something like “There wasn’t a personality fit....” but is it the correct thing to say? Obviously there are times this is true; however, in cases where it is not, you will gain the respect of the candidate (and it is a small world so don’t discount this aspect) and help them find the ‘right’ job if you speak straight talk to them. As in the instance above, start by stating what you liked about the candidate - after all you are trying to help them, not cut them off at the knees! Then give them examples of what was missing in a passive voice, i.e., “We felt that your answers were not quite as direct as what we were looking for...” or “Although we liked your experience, your presentation skills were not as honed as other candidates....”  The candidate may try to persuade you otherwise, but better you tell them the truth and then stick to your guns.

Last but not the least: be sure to use straight talk on yourself. Whenever you are in a situation where someone questions your actions or abilities or if you are feeling insecure about what you’ve done, you should (privately, of course) ask yourself: “Did I do that the best way possible?” and/or “Did I have the best interests of the company in mind when I made that decision?”  If you have a mentor or a trusted business associate, review the situation with him/her. You know what to do if the answer comes back in the negative!

So, take a deep breath, take time to think before speaking and then use straight talk in a common sense, positive manner. Try it. You will be amazed at the great results! 


Gni Grossman
Founder | GG Companies
Gni Grossman is a principal at GG Companies, a human resources consulting and executive recruiting firm. She started this company after over twenty years as a human resources generalist with corporations such as The Hay Group and De Lage Landen and 5 years focusing on recruiting for the equipment finance industry at Molloy Associates, Inc. Gni holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

Readers may contact Gni Grossman at and/or contact Gni at 781-859-5157.

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