Margaret considered herself a first class professional in a field where keeping your priorities straight and keeping your cool were both of the essence.
She worked as an emergency medical technician, the only woman in an Oakland, Calif., firehouse, until Jamie, another young nurse, joined the crew. Jamie seemed good-hearted and committed and, as the senior woman on the scene, Margaret willingly took her under her wing. But over time it became clear that Jamie's meek personality was getting in the way. She was afraid to take on many of the responsibilities necessary to be an EMT, like driving the ambulance or staying alone with a critical patient. Margaret knew she should say something but, since the conversation would have been awkward and surely necessitate hurting Jamie's feelings, she kept putting it off.
Then, one rainy night, the crew was called to a multiple car accident, the kind of large-scale emergency that required every member to operate, in EMT parlance, "above their scope of practice." Jamie couldn't do her part and wound up putting the whole team at risk. So, when the exhausted group returned to the firehouse in the early hours of the morning, Margaret finally sat Jamie down for the tough conversation she'd been avoiding all those months.
"I told her that she wasn't EMT material," Margaret recalls. "Her actions had jeopardized all of our lives. I explained that I wouldn't work with her again, and that if she didn't quit herself, I'd see that it happened for her."
Though such life-endangering circumstances might not apply to most workplaces, plenty of otherwise highly competent professional women are familiar with Margaret's impulse to do just about anything to avoid having that difficult conversation with a colleague. In short, we're still terrified of conflict. We want to be nice to and loved by everyone we work with. We don't want to hurt their feelings or rock the boat. In order to keep our spotless reputations, we can twist ourselves into every shape imaginable to avoid discussing a problematic situation, from telling someone they didn't get a promotion to confronting them about not pulling their weight to delivering a pink slip.
But that choice not to address a touchy issue just because it makes us feel uncomfortable is both unprofessional and unfair. Especially as women reach positions of more power and influence, the responsibilities of the job include letting people know when things are going badly as well as when the sailing is smooth. Though such conversations are rarely pleasant, there are a ways to minimize the damage.
In preparing to confront a difficult issue with a colleague, there are three key things to keep in mind:
- Be gentle
- Be respectful
- Practice beforehand
Don't do what Margaret did and wait until the heat of the moment to figure out what to say. Instead, schedule a private meeting with your colleague in a place where there's little chance you'll be interrupted or overheard. The day before, take a few minutes to sit down and plan out what you want say, and how you want to say it. Make notes. If you need spreadsheets or data to back you up, then make sure you have those on hand. If you think it would be helpful, actually do a dry run in front of the mirror or with a friend. The more cool, calm and collected you can be, the smoother things will go for both of you.
Be as specific as you can be about the problem and its possible solutions. General or nebulous criticism doesn't soften the blow. It just makes the situation unnecessarily confusing. Phrase things as kindly as possible, but don't be ambiguous in your convictions. If you tell your assistant that it might be kind of nice if she didn't make quite so many personal calls on office time, she may not understand that you are serious about her paying more focused attention to her work.
Prepare yourself for the kind of response you might get. Depending on the severity of the problem and the temperament of your colleague, you may run into anger, tears, or defensiveness. Do your best not to respond in kind. Understand that your colleague may feel hurt or embarrassed by the issues you've raised. Remind yourself why it's important to have this conversation. The most inconsiderate thing you can do to a coworker is to leave her clueless as to what's really going on.
A marketing executive at a major corporation recently told me about an experience in which she was one of three candidates up for an internal promotion. After an extensive series of interviews and many encouraging e-mail exchanges, she discovered the position had gone to another candidate when it was publicly announced in the company newsletter.
"I found their conduct so unbelievably disrespectful," she told me. "I felt like the least they owed me was a face to face meeting. The message they sent was that once I didn't get that promotion, I no longer mattered to them as a person at all."
She's right. Saving yourself the discomfort of a tough conversation may be the easiest choice, but it's also the most cowardly one. You owe it to your colleagues to be as straightforward and honest with them as you would hope they would be with you. No one loves conflict, but there's one other thing I'm sure most of us can agree upon. If issues hang around unaddressed, they only wind up getting worse.
"If I had it to do over again, I would've spoken to Jamie as soon as I noticed her performance slacking," Margaret told me. "I was so afraid of coming off like the bad guy. But, in certain situations, the bad guy is exactly who you are supposed to be."