Managers sugar coating comments to employees – good or bad news?

Hopefully anyone who read Luke Johnson’s excellent and highly relevant article in the Times of the 4th February, (“Why bosses should never sugar-coat their comments”) will be fully cognizant as to why “sugar coating” or obscuring even the most constructive criticism of their direct reports, is not an effective means of clarifying weaknesses nor of achieving the employees awareness and commitment to improvement.

Sugar coating only results in;

  • The employee being unsure as to whether their performance or conduct needs to be improved.
  • The employee probably making the assumption that their performance or conduct is reasonable and acceptable.

As a consequence, should the manager refer to any such discussion in the future, the employee would undoubtedly express complete surprise that such sugar coated commentary was intended to be any form of criticism, however constructively intended by the manager!

As a long established team of HR Managers, working primarily in the SME sectors, we would estimate that between 80% – 90% of the real HR challenges that we have to deal with involving the initiation of performance management procedures, are primarily as a consequence of managers trying to be just too nice and failing to be direct and honest enough with their direct reports.   However, being direct and honest does not of course mean rude, abrupt or negative, as the primary underlying intention should wholly be to gently, albeit firmly guide the employee on aspects where they should aim to improve, standards expected of them in the future and to support them in the achievement of these objectives.

For us, addressing such issues are simply a matter of being open, transparent and honest with all employees and if managers address such matters at an early stage, this improves dramatically the chances of the employee reaching the required standards.  This approach seeks to help the employee by clarifying where they are not achieving the required standards (performance or conduct): showing interest in their personal development (motivating them); supporting them and finally, giving focus to their efforts and the necessity for them to improve.

However, much comes down to whether the manager has both fully explained the role, the relevant responsibilities, important criteria and above all, the standards of both performance and conduct required for an employee in such a role.  Unfortunately, whilst this necessity is lessened for a more experienced and professionally “matured” person, it is often the case that the “dartboard “or targets at which the employee should be aiming to achieve, are just not clarified and need for them to be achieved, properly and clearly explained.

Much also depends on whether the issues that arise are due to an “inability” or in fact an “unwillingness” on the part of the employee, the first option means that the recruitment or transfer to the post were badly selected/handled as the assessment of them was flawed (so the Company’s failure) or the latter where they either have their own agenda and have a negative or potentially arrogant personality, which is of course the employees failure.

Colin Perkins is a Director/HR Manager for PSM HR Outsourcing