How Managers Can ‘Clear the Air’ Effectively

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Mar 2, 2017

Over lunch years ago, Stephen (not his real name), a senior executive at an insurance company, told me about a conversation he just had that perplexed and worried him. He had just announced to his team about a bonus restructuring that would more fully reward performance.

Stephen told one of his star performers, Claire (not her real name either) that with the new program she would be earning even more money. Much to his surprise, a pained expression flashed across Claire’s face and she responded, “I’m not in it for the money.”

What Stephen had thought would be a positive expression of recognition seemed to have backfired. Stephen cared deeply about his people and was excited about the new compensation structure because he felt it would more appropriately reward excellence.

He found Claire’s response mystifying, and because of his huge respect for her, worrisome.

As we discussed her response, Stephen expressed his concern that she apparently felt misunderstood. She seemed to have misinterpreted his framing of the new bonus structure as reflecting an incorrect and unflattering appraisal of what motivated her. Given her remark, it sounded like she believed that he thought she was motivated primarily by money, rather than a desire to contribute to the company, help their clients, and do a great job.

Although he believed that her response was due to her misinterpretation, he confessed he was reluctant to bring up the conversation to see if that was what happened, so he could clear up the misinterpretation.

Worried about making it worse

He said he was afraid of making things worse.

While most of us have experienced this fear, most of the time when we talk about awkward issues and unspoken tensions, it not only resolves them so we can move on and not have the albatross hanging around, it also usually strengthens the relationship. It does so because it brings us to a level of authenticity and “realness” that make for stronger, more open, trusting relationships.

Because of his fear, his plan was to not bring it up and hope it went away; i.e. Claire would eventually forget.

Claire’s emotional reaction would obviously diminish — and even disappear — over time. However, her belief that Stephen didn’t really understand who she was, her belief that he didn’t really “get her,” would linger on.

The compound effect

This belief would affect how she felt about Stephen and her job. She might go months without thinking about it, until she felt misunderstood or misperceived again, and then that old experience would be added to the current one, as corroboration that Stephen doesn’t “get” her and doubts her commitment.

As anyone who has felt misunderstood or unfairly labeled by their manager knows, such perceptions affect how you feel about your manager and your job. It is one of those experiences that leave a lingering mélange of frustration, anger, and resentment. Just like criticism that is perceived as unfair, believing you or your intentions have been unfairly judged diminishes one’s enthusiasm about one’s job and employer.

Thus, if Stephen avoids bringing up the issue, he risks allowing this likely downward trajectory to continue.

One way to have the conversation

We discussed this and how he might bring up the issue to Claire. I suggested that he could say something like:

Hey I wanted to check in with you about the whole bonus restructuring thing we talked about. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, the thing about ‘I’m not in it for the money.’

I was concerned that what I thought was a good way of rewarding you and the rest of the team for meeting our goals isn’t the way that would be most meaningful to you. So, can I ask you this: If you were me wanting to reward Claire for a job well done and helping us meet our goals, how would you reward Claire in a way that was most meaningful to her?

By the way, this opening is what I call the Declaration/Invitation. You can learn more about this simple two-step process in my article “Here’s a Way for Difficult Conversations to Be Less Difficult.”

Now this approach doesn’t directly ask Claire to share her reaction to the announcement or ask if she felt misunderstood. It focuses on finding out what works best for her, and what Stephen can do in the future. With this less direct approach, Claire might open up about how she interpreted his new compensation plan if she felt comfortable with how the conversation unfolded.

I recommend starting off in a more indirect, low-key way if you believe it would cause too much anxiety or trigger defensiveness taking a more direct approach.

A more direct approach

If their relationship was strong enough and open enough to handle a more direct approach, which I don’t think it was given his fear, Stephen could begin the conversation this way:

Claire, I was thinking about our conversation the other day, about the new compensation structure and your response to it. When I reflected on your comment about not being in it for the money, and how you looked distressed when I told you about the new structure, it made me think you took my idea as meaning I think your primary motivation is money rather than how much you care about your work and doing a great job. Was I just imagining things or did the compensation idea come across that way to you?

Notice how this puts Claire on the spot, not in a challenging way, but in a way that asks her to share her thoughts and feelings and to be candid. Also notice how the closing question is a softer way of asking:

Was I just imagining things or did you interpret my idea as meaning that you are primarily motivated by money and feel misunderstood?

While that level of directness and request for authentic sharing is appropriate in personal relationships and strong, open professional relationships, it might be too much for most people, especially when talking with their manager.

Feel safe to be open

Hopefully, with the more indirect approach suggested first, and with Stephen demonstrating an open, non-defensive posture during the conversation, Claire would feel safe enough to talk openly and answer this question without Stephen having to ask.

The key point, though, is to be willing to bring up the issue and balance directness with sensitivity, so the person is likely to feel invited into a conversation, not challenged.

Because this was part of a lunch conversation and Stephen was not a coaching client, I didn’t follow up with him to see if he had the conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised — given how reluctant most people are to have potentially awkward conversations — if he did NOT bring it up and hoped Claire would eventually forget about it. She won’t.

Do you need to clear the air?

As you think about the people you work with, are there any that come to mind when you think, “It would be SO nice to clear the air with this person?”

Is there anyone who comes to mind when you finish this sentence fragment: “I wish there wasn’t that weird tension between me and ________?”

Are there misunderstandings or possible misunderstandings that are either leaving you feeling unsettled or getting in the way of your working as well with that person as possible? Are you hoping that if you ignore it, maybe they’ll forget about it?

How about being brave and bringing it up, or talking first with a wise colleague or coach about how to approach the issue?

Think about the difference it would make if you had the conversation and it cleared the air.

You might be thinking “What if it makes it worse?”

That’s possible and must be factored into your decision and your fallback plan. That being said, I’ve found throughout the years that when I do the work to go into the conversation in a productive emotional and mental state, and I think through how to best bring up the issue, the results can be amazing.

Yours can too if you do the work, then have the conversation.

If you have other suggestions for readers about how to bring up these kinds of issues, please share below.

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