As a leader, your ability to set an appropriate tone for performance conversations is critical to supporting your message. This is where many managers stumble, especially when they are anxious about confronting an employee. A serious message can get lost or watered down if the tone of the conversation is too light or the language is soft and indirect. I call this “candy-coating” your message; setting a lighter tone for a serious message in the hopes that the message will be more readily accepted and to avoid confrontation with employees. If you candy-coat your message too much, they may dismiss your message entirely or perceive it as being unimportant when in fact that may not be accurate.
When it comes to setting the tone, the opposite problem of candy-coating your message is also a concern. You can unnecessarily “freak out” employees by sending signals that convey a more serious issue than you are actually discussing. The employee becomes so worried that she is about to be fired that she fails to hear the more benign message you are actually sharing.
If there are others involved in your meeting with the employee, make sure in your pre-meeting that you discuss the overall tone you want to convey and ensure that each participant is supporting that message. Setting the appropriate tone for the conversation helps to emotionally prepare the employee for the message you are about to deliver.
There are several things to think about when setting the tone of a conversation.
Formality of language—You can use formal words when setting up the meeting or your language can be casual and nonthreatening. For example, you can send the employee an ominous email requesting a meeting to discuss “performance issues” or you can stop the person in the hall and ask, “Do you have a minute? There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” The method of delivery and language should match the ultimate message you intend to deliver.
Body language—Research shows in face-to-face communications we communicate 55 percent of our message through our body language, 38 percent through our tone of voice, and only 7 percent through our word choice. That means that 93 percent of our message will be received by vehicles other than the words we select. Hopefully now you can understand how important body language is to that equation.
What are you communicating with your body language when the employee arrives for the meeting? Are you sitting relaxed in your chair or are you sitting up straight with such perfect posture the Queen Mother would be envious?
Think about the room setup for the meeting as well. Are participants already in their seats or is everyone milling about with people taking a seat as the meeting begins? Are you sitting across from the employee behind a desk or next to her in a chair?
Be aware of your facial expressions and gestures as well. Eye contact is very critical. Be careful that you do not actively avoid eye contact when the employee arrives or during the meeting as this can communicate that you are uncomfortable with the situation or the message. Many people also associate eye contact with trust, so make sure you are meeting and holding her gaze without staring.
By matching your word choice and body language to the overall tone you want to convey, you will help ensure you do not down-play an important message or exagerate a simple one.
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