Management Matters: White Lies Are Still Lies

Steve has always been pretty good at his job. Now the organization has changed to keep up with changing times. Steve’s job responsibilities have changed to keep up with the changing times as well. The boss notices that Steve isn’t doing all that well any longer. Steve’s boss suggests some training to get performance standards to improve.

However, even with new goals and standards being documented, Steve doesn’t really improve. It may be that Steve doesn’t want to change his performance or that Steve can’t really do the job that is now being asked of him. But what Steve may do is hold the boss and HR hostage as everyone focuses ‘all their efforts working through a process with a predictable outcome: Steve gets fired or Steve stays in the job and performs badly.

Another somewhat predictable outcome is that other people at work put some effort into avoiding Steve or spending time before interacting with him snacking on antacids to calm churning stomachs.

What is needed is managerial courage: the boss should tell Steve the truth. It may not come as a complete surprise to Steve. Employees like Steve are well aware that the requirements and standards for effective performance in the job have changed. The boss can be tactful and honest. It might sounds something like “You may be aware that there has been a shift in our organization’s objectives, in the requirements of your position to achieve the goals, and it appears that your skill sets are no longer a match.”

It may also mean that telling this kind of the truth is accompanied by a reasonable severance and signing documents that reduce the likelihood of litigation. It means that the boss doesn’t lie.

In a ‘perfect world, it would be even better if supervisors and managers had training, support and coaching in how to be honest when delivering difficult news. Even the most well thought out and practiced delivery of distressing news contains the possibility of things not going well. Why not provide the needed assistance in the form of training or one-on-one coaching to insure the best outcome possible?

Many managers struggle with these kinds of conversations. It can seem like there are only two approaches: avoid them at all costs or fumble them badly. Either they say nothing and remain silent (abdicating their managerial responsibility) or they blurt out what they want to say without any forethought, no awareness of the impact of their words or any consideration of the emotional fallout. Some bosses are just eager to get it over with and put the conversation behind them. Often it isn’t even a dialogue – it’s a monologue, and the damage done remains for a while afterward.

Why is this so common? People often assume that if someone has the title of manager (Executive, Director, VP, COO, CIO, Supervisor, etc), then they have skills required for that position.

It’s true that difficult conversations are a part of work life, but it is also true that they are the part of work life most people try to avoid. Telling the truth and being tactfully honest is not easy, but it is often a critical and necessary part of our work life.

You can be more effective when being tactfully honest by -

  • Being clear that this is the right thing to do and to do otherwise is lying.
  • Weighing the risk vs. the reward: your comfort vs. the impact on the team/goals.
  • Practicing which almost always improves performance. It may never be an easy thing to do but you can get better at doing it.
  • Getting support/help/feedback/learning from others. HR, your boss, a mentor, your professional network are all resources. If you don’t leverage their knowledge, they are not serving you well.

Can you recall the last time you saw someone step up to a challenging interpersonal situation and be both diplomatic and honest? It’s pretty impressive. Not too many are born with that ability. Those who do it well have learned how to be honest and tactful.

You can learn that skill too.

Joni Daniels is Daniels & Associates, a management training and development consulting practice that specializes in developing human resources in the areas of leadership and management training, interpersonal effectiveness and efficiency, skill- building, and organizational development interventions. With over 25 years of experience, she is a sought after resource for Fortune 500 clients, professional organizations, higher education, media outlets and business publications. Joni can be reached at

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