If you’ve struggling to work with some of your team members, odds are you have not embraced the idea that employees need clarity. Truth be told — most agency leaders struggle with this, especially if they are offering constructive criticism or even tougher — disciplinary action.
Agency owners and department heads are notoriously passive aggressive in their management style (you may well be the exception to the rule) and I think there are a few reasons for that.
Most agency owners/leaders are accidental leaders: Odds are you were a brilliant writer, art director, account exec or some other tactical role earlier in your agency life. At some point, you either got promoted or decided to hang up a shingle. Suddenly, you’re the boss and now you have to supervise people. In many cases — the people that used to be your peers. And you’re flying without a net because you’ve never been trained or coached on how to mentor and coach a team.
You don’t have a practice dummy: When we’re trying to learn a new skill, it’s ideal to be able to practice before we have to actually execute. Managing people doesn’t work that way. So you need to ask for a lot of forgiveness as you improve. Admitting that you didn’t handle a conversation well or could have been better at a coaching opportunity doesn’t negate your authority.
You may not have good role models: It’s easy to conjure up the name of a bad boss but much tougher to point to someone who really did mentor you, give you constructive and specific feedback and held you both capable and accountable. Good bosses/leaders are not plentiful. So you may have to swim in uncharted waters.
It’s difficult to be candid and clear: Even if you know you should, it’s hard to tell someone they’re not doing a good job or that their behavior isn’t going to cut it. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t want to suffer their reaction (anger, tears, etc.) so we dance around the issue. We use all kinds of weasel words and at the end of the day, they leave confused or frustrated.
All of that being said — it doesn’t really matter why you aren’t good at it. You need to get good at it. Clarity is something you owe them. It’s not a privilege for a few. All employees need clarity.
They can’t learn, adapt, or course correct if they aren’t sure what you just said or what you meant by what you said. And let’s face it, when someone is telling us something unpleasant and they’re being ambiguous, it’s pretty appealing and easy to choose (consciously or unconsciously) to misinterpret their meaning.
How do you get better at providing clarity for your employees?
Rehearse: Rehearsal offers you a couple advantages. First, it forces you to think through what you want to say. You need a script before you can rehearse. Second, it allows you to hear it out loud. Especially if this new territory for you, it’s going to be a little rough around the edges for a bit. It’s far better to smooth that in private and refine your message.
Use straightforward language: If your employee is going to be fired if they repeat the behavior you are talking to them about, you need to say: “If you ever do XYZ again, I will fire you immediately.” Don’t say “we’ll have to make a change” or “we can’t allow that” or some other phrase that means “I will fire you.” Does that feel harsh? Well, given the message you are delivering, it is harsh. But it’s the truth. And you owe them the truth.
Be humane: Offering your employees clarity does not mean you should be a jerk. You can empathize with them that you know it’s hard to heard this sort of feedback or that they may not agree with you. But that should not change what you say or how you say it.
Treat them like grown-ups: Part of what we’re doing when we blur our messages is we discount our employee’s ability to be a professional. No matter how young your employee is, if they’re working for you, they deserve your respect and one of the ways you offer them your respect is giving them credit for being able to handle the truth. (Did we all hear Jack Nicholson just now?) If you want them to act like grown ups, treat them like one.
Do it on the little issues, so the big issues are easier: This is a skill and skills take time and practice. Don’t tackle the grandaddy of conversations for your first effort in clarity. And this isn’t just for one on one situations. A good place to start is all employee meetings. Prep your remarks and then review them to make sure you’re not skirting issues or dancing around tough topics.
Don’t improv — it’s okay to ask for prep time: If an employee triggers a conversation that you know is going to be difficult, you don’t have to engage in that moment. You can’t ignore the request, but you don’t have to fulfill it immediately. It’s okay to say “It’s important to me that our conversation be as productive and positive as possible. I’d like some time to prep so I can make sure that happens. Can we schedule some time to discuss this tomorrow?”
If employee satisfaction, retention, or growth matter to you and your agency — then clarity is not an optional exercise. If you want to be a respected leader that your team will follow into the fire — then clarity is not an optional exercise. If you want to be more profitable, have happier clients and spend less of your time being on the receiving end of their clarity — then clarity is not an optional exercise.
You employees need clarity. And if you want to run a successful agency — so do you.