Blunt Management

Pick up and read a business magazine and you’re likely to get personnel advice such as “Never criticize an employee directly.” Other books or speakers encourage you to “sandwich” the criticism between two positives. For example, if an employee is continuously late, a supervisor is instructed to say, “James, you’re a valued employee here at Acme Widget Enterprises. However you’ve been coming to work late quite a few times. Hey! Good job on last week’s budget report!”

James only remembers what he wants…that he’s a valued employee and he does great budget reports. While we always try to treat people with respect, there comes a time when bluntness is needed. Forget the subtle hints and e-mail reminders. Disregard the sandwich routine and simply state the facts.

A Blunt Example

At a speaking/leadership conference, the class required everyone to frequently give short presentations or mini-speeches to the group. Ed, a sales rep, had great content in his speeches, yet cleared his throat with a slight “Ahm” after every 3-4 sentences. While it was noticeable in his speeches, no one mentioned it, thinking he might have some allergy or throat condition. At the end of the second day, small groups formed and critiqued each other’s speeches. Someone in Ed’s group tried tactfully to mention Ed might want to watch his throat clearing habit. It obviously had little affect, since the “Ahm’s” continued, even in ordinary conversation.

Then it happened. During the closing hour of the conference, Ed gave a five-minute speech. He had a great opening, maintained eye contact, and even used a few props. Of course by now the rest of the class silently counted his throat clearing sounds while he presented. Ed barely finished his sentence when the instructor asked him, “Ed, do you have some sort of throat problem?” “No” answered Ed.

“Then stop clearing your throat. It’s an annoying habit and it interferes with people listening to you. I’d never hire you because I don’t want to listen to someone say ‘Ahm’ every 15 seconds,” said the instructor. Ed told the group his wife had mentioned the habit several years ago, but he simply disregarded her suggestion. The instructor went on to suggest his wife tap his arm or cough herself whenever Ed went into his throat clearing routine. He actually thanked the instructor and wondered out loud why no one else had ever mentioned the annoying habit. Sometimes you just have to be blunt.

Three Ways To Be Nicely Blunt

Without being rude or demeaning, here are three ways to communicate when “bluntness” is needed.

1. Have other communication attempts failed? If so, sometimes a direct, yet non-confrontational approach is the only way to make your point. Begin the conversation with, “Steve, I’ve tried to talk to you about this before, and it looks like I need to be more direct.” Then state exactly what you want to say in a calm voice.

2. Be specific. Instead of saying, “Susan, you leave work early lots of times,” try, “Susan. I’ve recorded on this calendar the number of times you’ve left work early. According to this record, that’s been six days since February 1st.” Being factual keeps the conversation on a non-confrontational level. Stick with the facts and avoid generalizations or veiled name-calling.

3. Don’t take the person’s reaction personally. Most likely they’ll be argumentative and upset. Realize that’s their way of dealing with what you just said. If the person is very upset, listen to their opinions, then offer to continue the discussion in an hour after they’ve calmed down.

Personal Experience

I recently had the unusual experience of appearing on the FOX reality show, Trading Spouses. For one week, I lived with a family and their mom stayed with my husband and daughter. The dad where I stayed was very set in his ways. He insisted his wife do all the cooking, cleaning taking care of the three kids and run a business from home. He barked orders and yelled at his kids. His wife told me she had tried tactfully to get him more involved with the kids and to be more respectful to her. Her gentle words had little impact on his uncouth behavior. I had one week to get this guy in shape!

When I saw that tact and “sandwiching” statements weren’t getting through, I tried a more direct approach.

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