Communicate face-to-face, with empathy…

The Problem:  Harold, a good employee, had taken a lot of leave in recent months, usually a day or two at a time.  Sue, his supervisor, didn’t think he seemed sick at all, and didn’t know what was going on with him.  She was a little afraid to ask; she didn’t want to invade his privacy.  But the amount of time he was missing was really starting to interfere with the team’s work – and others were complaining about having to pick up his workload.  Sue really needed to know whether he’d be back and doing his share of the work soon, or whether she needed to think of some other way to get the work done.

What Sue did:  In an effort to address the team’s needs and plan out the work, Sue decided to write Harold an e-mail about his absences.  Here’s what she said:

Harold, I know you’ve been gone a lot.  Your absences have really impacted the team’s ability to get the work done.  You know we have to get this project done on time and on budget.  I need a commitment from you that you’re going to be here on a regular basis, or I’m going to be forced to let you go even though I don’t want to do that.  I need someone I can depend on.  Please get back to me by the end of the week and tell me your plans.

Here is Harold’s response: 

Sue, I can’t believe you’re threatening to fire me.  I’ve done a lot for this team over the past several years, and you know it.  Just because I’m turning 60 and have a couple of health problems that have forced me to miss this work I love, you want to get rid of me.  Wait till you’re my age, you’ll see.  I won’t accept this kind of treatment from someone half my age.  You need to know I’m talking to a lawyer.  This is age discrimination, plain and simple.

What happened here?  The first thing that happened was that Sue decided to address a serious issue by e-mail.  And, rather than expressing concern and empathy, her very matter-of-fact statements about needing to finish the project on time and under budget (true) and needing an employee who would be able to commit to helping with that (also true) backfired.  Harold quickly became defensive, grabbed at the nearest thing he could think of (it must be age discrimination) and responded to what he felt was her threat with one of his own.

A much better approach would have been for Sue to sit down with Harold in a quiet, private, unhurried setting, express her concern and solicit his help in figuring out how to finish the project.  He would have felt valued, heard, and engaged in creating a solution.  Even if in the end he would have needed to leave his job, he would have done so with positive feelings – and likely no lawyer or discrimination charge.

Remember: We sometimes write when we should communicate face-to-face, talk when we should listen, and state facts when we should be expressing empathy.  There is always time later for writing and stating facts.  Start with empathetic human communication.  It takes a little more time at the beginning, but goes a very long way to creating a better workplace and saving time in the end.

Have you ever gotten an e-mail when you should have been invited to a conversation?  Tell us about it!  ~DS

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