Tough Talk

Successful managers are great handlers of stress. Even the best, though, run into the occasional workplace challenge that creates more than the usual level of heartburn.

How good are you at handling things when the going gets tough. To find out, imagine how you would respond to the three workplace challenges described below. Then see what workplace psychologists say about each.

CHALLENGE: Joe, one of your salespeople, has bad breath that's driving away customers.

RESPONSE: Realizing you have to take action is one thing. Knowing how to approach Joe without creating anger and resentment is another. For advice we turn to Leil Lowndes, a New York-based communications expert and speaker. "It's always difficult to bring up a topic that can cause embarrassment to your employee," she says. "But you have to take action quickly because anyone who deals with the public must have immaculate personal hygiene."

Lowndes suggests avoiding a formal office setting in favor of a casual luncheon where you and Joe will be more at ease. Wait until lunch is over then casually break out a roll of mints. Take one yourself, then offer one to Joe: "I always take one of these to keep my breath fresh. Would you like one?"

In the best of situations Joe will take a mint and ask if you had noticed he had bad breath. This would provide your opening for a more direct discussion of how such a condition can affect Joe's interaction with customers and thus his career.

Come prepared, however, for an unpleasant alternative. Joe may refuse your offer and take offense. "Really!? Are you suggesting that I have a problem with my breath or something." Lowndes cautions against making any sign of embarrassment or retreat. Rather, immediately make your communication a little more direct: "We all need to watch out for ourselves. This is even more so in our situation where we work in such close quarters and meet so many customers. We really need to make a good impression on them all."

CHALLENGE: Sharon, a customer, is on the phone complaining about rude behavior on the part of Andy, one of your employees.

SOLUTION: Rudeness in an employee is inexcusable and we can all understand why Sharon is upset. Empathizing with Sharon, though, is not the same thing as dealing with her anger in a productive manner. In fact, expressing sympathy with a bromide such as "I understand how you feel" may increase her anger level because she really wants you to take action that shows you value her as a customer.

So how should you respond to Sharon? Judith C. Tingley, a psychologist and president of Performance Improvement Pros, Phoenix, suggests moving right away to resolve any business transaction that has been left hanging. "Go immediately to the subject of whether Sharon's initial problem was taken care of," she suggests. "Say something like this: 'I will be happy to talk with you about Andy but my main concern right now is the issue that you had asked Andy's help with. Was it solved?'

"If the problem has been left hanging, try to solve it right there on the phone," says Tingley. Can't do that? Then say something like this: "Let me get this problem taken care of first, and then I will call you back and let you know what happened. Then we can talk further."

At this point Sharon is already starting to feel better because you are taking physical steps in her behalf. When you call back to report on what you've done, Sharon will likely be far less angry and may well be flattered that you are going out of your way to serve her. At this point, Tingley suggests following up with a statement such as this: "Is there something else that you would like me to do relative to Andy's conversation with you."

Sharon may well say, "No, as long as the problem is taken care of I am OK, but it still seems to me that such conduct by your employee is bad for your reputation."

You want to respond in a way that avoids accentuating the conflict with Andy while assuring Sharon you will take action to improve your staff's performance. Agree that your customer's interpretation is valid: "Such conduct is not the image we want to present to our customers. I can assure you that we will try to work harder at our training."

CHALLENGE: Sandra, one of your salespeople, has had three poor performance reviews and you must terminate her.

SOLUTION: Letting someone go is stressful for both parties. For advice on what to do we turned to Jeffrey P. Kahn, M.D., a Manhattan psychiatrist and chief executive officer of WorkPsych Associates, a consulting firm specializing in organizational behavior and employee productivity.

"The key to handling this situation is to be aware of what Sandra might be feeling and also what you might be feeling," suggests Dr. Kahn. Getting a grip on emotions will help you be more empathic and professional. That, in turn, can help to obviate any hard feelings in Sandra that may cause her to get back at your company through sabotage, a lawsuit or just plain bad-mouthing.

Kahn suggests starting out by spending some time answering this question: "If I were Sandra and I were let go, how would I feel." The idea here is actually to get in touch with your own emotions, which will largely be a re.ection of what you anticipate from Sandra. And understanding your own emotions will help you avoid saying the wrong thing.

For example, if you'd feel angry about termination then you may go into the meeting expecting to meet an angry Sandra as well. You may therefore conduct yourself in a confrontational way that benefits neither your employee nor your company. "You don't want to end up saying in some words or other that Sandra is a bad person," cautions Dr. Kahn. "She almost certainly is not, she is just someone who did not perform to policy standards."

What's a good way to break the ice once the meeting starts? "Odds are Sandra knows something might be up even before she reaches your office," offers Dr. Kahn. "So in many cases the easiest way to conduct the meeting is to ask a question rather than make an announcement."

You might start with this opener: "Sandra, do you have a thought about why we are meeting today." Sandra is likely to respond in this way: "Well, I am afraid you are going to let me go."

Then you can sympathetically agree with her: "Yes, unfortunately that is what this meeting is about."

If Sandra does not introduce the subject, then move on to say, "We are here to talk about your future with the company." Cite the results of Sandra's last three performance reviews as evidence for the unavoidable conclusion that it is time for her to leave the firm. Don't forget to remind her of any severance benefits, and to offer whatever help or support you can.

Getting in touch with your feelings, as we have seen, will help you conduct your meeting in a professional manner. Concludes Dr. Kahn: "Some people have said that emotional abilities are better predictors of business success than intellectual abilities. A termination meeting is an especially good example of when that can be true."


How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships , by Leil Lowndes. How psychology and body language can enhance communications. McGraw Hill, 2003. $14.95.

The Power of Indirect Influence , by Judith C. Tingley. A guide to effective communications and subtle techniques for influencing others. AMACOM, 2000. $17.95.

WorkPsych Associates, New York, operates two free e-mail discussion groups for managers and human resource professionals. You may subscribe to "Executive Emotion," or "Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace" by visiting, and clicking on "Handbook, Publications and Listservs."

Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace , by Jeffrey P. Kahn and Alan M. Langlieb. A manager's guide to identifying, understanding, preventing and resolving individual and organizational mental health problems in the workplace. JosseyBass, 2003. $75.00

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