15 January 2024

For many years, people have ranted and railed against the dread managerial "Do you have a second to chat?" opening that has no context around it. Just Google "Can we talk" and you get something in excess of 4 billion responses, many/most of which talk about how to respond to those openings, coupled with a stern shaking finger for those who use them. But what should we use instead?

Imagine, for a moment, you're a manager. Your job, more than anything, is to keep a steady and close pulse on the team as a whole. You need to talk to them, listen to them, respond to them, and connect with them at both an intellectual and emotional level. In many respects, you are the connection they have to the rest of the company (particularly in remote-work situations), and much of what they know about the rest of the company will flow through you. Communication is essential.

But, truthfully, there's another part of the job that we often ignore in conversations like these, and that's that managers are often privy to information that they are not permitted to share with anyone, or at least not until some particular deadline has been passed or some kind of criteria has been met. Confidentiality, thy name is "manager"; you must never discuss personal information about one of your team members to anyone else, even if you know (or, more often, think you know) that the individual doesn't consider it personal or is comfortable with you discussing it with others. That's theirs to tell, not yours. There is so much you cannot discuss until it's "done": upcoming promotions, demotions, hiring, firing, reorganization, performance, it's a whole list of things that must--by both law and company policy--be kept close to your chest until "the right moment".

(We will also leave alone for the moment that "the right moment" is often decided long ahead of time, and by people who aren't you or even in the room with you. Complain as much as you wish, this is not likely to change. Ever.)

All of this puts a natural tension on the free and open communication that any reasonable and/or compassionate manager wants to have.

Let's assume for the moment that you have news to share with one of your team. For the sake of argument, the actual news itself doesn't matter--while it would be tempting to say, "Oh, it's terrible news about layoffs" or "It's that dreaded separation/termination conversation", the opposite is often true, too, for purposes of this blog post. Either way, as your manager, I have a piece of news that I need to share with you.

Now, keep in mind a few key considerations:

Assuming I've been diligent about my communications with you, I have a couple of options available with which to deliver this news:

Beyond those, when do you have regularly-scheduled meetings with each of your directs? Most manager's don't, and so now we get in to the world of the dreaded unscheduled chat.

Look, let's be face it: Any time you schedule something with your direct that isn't part of a regular cadence, it's going to raise some eyebrows. And as soon as their eyebrows go up, so will their anxiety. It's a natural human response: The brain is basically hard-wired to assume the worst of a situation. (Want to really watch this in action? Send your spouse or significant other a text message with just "Can we talk?" and then don't send anything after that. Or worse, start to type a follow-up, then erase it without sending, then start to type a follow-up, then erase it without sending, and by about the fifth or sixth iteration of this, you'll have effectively pushed them into a psychotic break.)

If you really want to try and ease your direct's anxiety, you can try to provide some context. "Hey, can we chat? I need to talk to you about your promotion." That certainly provides some context to the conversation, but it also runs the risk of misinterpretation on their end. "I need to talk to you about your promotion" can be interpreted by the confident as "I need to tell you that you got your promotion!" which, when it turns out that they didn't get it, feels like an utter rejection and low blow. "I need to talk to you about your promotion" to the anxious can easily be "I need to tell you that you blew it and didn't get the promotion", but they're also just as likely to interpret it as "I need to tell you that you blew it and not only did you fail to get the promotion, the CEO is furious at your impertience and wants you fired", ridiculous as that may sound. (Anxiety and unwarranted assumption really knows no boundaries.)

The other danger of providing some context about a conversation is that unless you can do so without giving away part of the conversation, you run the risk of the worst of all situations: When the direct replies back with a response that demands more information or explanation. Now you're in exactly the situation you didn't want to be in, trying to explain or discuss a sensitive topic over a context-less medium like text, email, or instant messenger chat. If you try and punt on the conversation, your direct stews and simmers and gets angry or upset; if you don't, you're unable to read them effectively (and vice versa) and it becomes easy to really blow the whole thing into a Really Big Deal. Definitely not high on the Ted Lasso Scale of Senstivity and Compassion.

I'll be transparent here: I personally have never found a way to ask a direct for an unscheduled meeting without triggering those negative feelings, and I really don't think there is one. Thus, my only real advice or suggestions here is as follows:

And, hopefully it goes without saying, if you can provide context to the conversation, by all means do so! Then you avoid all of this, and the world is a bright and happy place again. Most of the time, anyway....

Tags: management   teams  

Last modified 15 January 2024