The headline in the Aug. 8 Business Week got my attention: “Winning the tough conversations at work.” The column lists four steps to follow in an uncomfortable conversation with someone at work (the example used is a manager talking to a subordinate.)

It is typical of advice offered as “good management techniques” that in reality are subtle manipulative techniques to get others to do something you want without revealing your intentions. Our bias is that this undermines trust, accountability and true collaboration. 

The first red flag in the Business Week column was the headline. Collaboration and “winning” are mutually exclusive.

Step 1 tells managers to talk about commitment to the relationship because “people are more inclined to change their behavior when they appreciate just how much you care about the relationship.” 

How can a relationship be authentic when people use the relationship to instigate a change in behavior? An authentic conversation means being direct about the business reasons for changing the behavior. 

Techniques like “filling their emotional tanks” and “replace ‘you’ with ‘we’” also have manipulation at their core. You can see it in the suggested conversation:
  • “John, you are one of the most creative designers I have ever met.”

  • “Let’s talk about we can get all the tasks completed on time” (emphasis added).
Using praise to “soften” a request/demand for behavior change, or talking about “we” when clearly it is “you” who is being asked to change – well, you get the point. And it’s likely the employee does too. 

An alternative would be to have an authentic conversation by:
  • Raising the difficult issue with goodwill (“When a client's project is delivered late, it puts this business at risk.”)

  • Acknowledge your own contribution to the situation (“I didn’t stay on top of things the way I should have, and this seems to have contributed to the missed deadline.”)

  • Frame choices for the future (“I have some thoughts on how this could be avoided, and I’d like to hear your ideas on what could be done differently in the future.”)
Direct, adult-to-adult conversations are a fundamental to creating a culture where people take accountability for their own performance.