Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I have an employee who is extremely detailed in every way. This can be great in some cases, but whenever she speaks (in a meeting or just one on one) she is extremely long-winded. She will generally say the same thing three different ways, and then summarize. Her emails and written projects are novels.
I find that she is completely unaware of the issue; often before a meeting when we all agree to be brief, I will do my part (hoping to be an example) but she doesn't pick up on it.
My main concern is that people really tune her out as she continues to speak. I want her to succeed, and so I really want to give her the feedback and tools she needs. I realize this is the way she is, and I'm not sure it can be changed. Do you have any advice?
You're absolutely right that this habit will hold her back professionally; the higher up the ladder she goes and the more she's in front of higher-level managers, the more important it will become for her to distill a message down to its essentials and convey it quickly and concisely.
Assuming the rest of her work is good--and thus it's worth a short-term investment of your time to help her improve in this area--here's what I suggest:
1. Sit down with her and say that you want to have a serious conversation with her about a work habit. Explain that conveying information more concisely isn't just a style preference; it's a business necessity, and it's something that you need her to actively work on. Tell her that you're worried that it's impacting her professionally and will continue to do so, and that her work is good and deserves to have people pay attention to it, but they won't if she doesn't find a way to communicate more concisely.
2. Give her specific guidelines. It's not enough just to say "keep things shorter," because her calibration meter is off. She can't tell when something is too long. So you need to spell it out. For example, you might tell her that no memo should be longer than one page and that each should be written primarily in bullet points, email should be no more than three short paragraphs, and presentations should be no longer than X minutes; she should observe how long others speak at meetings and speak no longer than that herself.
3. Coach her actively going forward. For example, when you assign her a written project, give her a maximum page count at the outset. If she's concerned that she won't be able to include all the information she thinks should be included, talk it through with her. As you hear what she's worried won't fit in, explain why X is important to include but Y isn't. Explain that higher-level decision makers specifically don't want all the information. They want high-level conclusions and takeaways, and to be able to trust that that's been backed up by thought and research before it came to them so that they don't have to spend their time on that part. Some people genuinely don't realize this, and they feel that their work won't be credible or will seem incomplete if they don't include all relevant details on the topic.
4. Don't rely on her picking up on hints, like your asking at the start of the meeting that everyone be brief or being brief yourself as an example. That's not working, so you're going to need to be more explicit. Instead, you might say in a meeting, "Jane, could you give us a one-minute overview of X?" Or when it's just the two of you, "This is more than I need; I trust you to have the details covered without me needing to be in the loop. What are the parts that you need my input on?"
5. And last, make sure to give her feedback along the way, whether it's "The start to your presentation on the call was great, but I think you started losing people when you talked about the details of how the new software will work" or "This memo is a great example of you putting into practice what we talked about, and I love how you conveyed all the high-level information in an easy-to-skim way."
If you're willing to invest some time to do this, you should either see a real change in the next few months or not. If you don't, lack of improvement might mean that she gets fewer or no opportunities to present before senior management, or that she'll never be your first choice for higher-profile projects, or that it impacts her ability to progress in the organization. Or it might just mean that you'll have to continue sending projects back to her with instructions to shorten them.
Whatever the likely consequences, talk to her about them explicitly so she's clear on what the tradeoff is that she's making. But with a couple of months of focused coaching on this, I think you have a good chance of helping her significantly improve.
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