Discomfort and Change in the Invisible Spotlight

Some degree of discomfort sets the stage for change. The trick is not to avoid it but to manage it head on.

Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz

There’s just no way around the fact that speaking the truth to an employee about a misstep or oversight is a thorny business. The idea that you can criticize a person’s work and at the same time keep him smiling is silly. It won’t matter that your motives are pure, your approach constructive and earnest. If you have something unfavorable to say, you’re going to trip the employee’s security alarm.

And yet on this matter, contemporary management wisdom is infected with mythology and bad medicine. Over the past half century, we’ve embraced the idea that managers can handle conflict without anyone feeling pain. We ask managers to read books, watch instructional DVDs, and attend training classes on how to achieve mutually satisfying, “win-win solutions” through “open, empathic dialog” with their employees. We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that if only managers burnish their communication skills to a fine gloss, these trying conversations can be comfortable. As if spin can be an analgesic for the pain of unflattering words.

Unfortunately, managers too often come away from these drills confident they can discuss serious problems and deficiencies without causing any suffering. How comfortably the conversation goes becomes their measure of success. But here’s the thing: Contrary to popular belief, people don’t change when they’re comfortable. They change when they’re uncomfortable.

The Compassion Paradox

When managers varnish the truth, they may avoid an awkward, prickly conversation, but they’ll fix nothing. They’ll improve nothing. And this is because they create no incentive, opportunity, or direction for change.

That’s what tripped up Peter, a particularly kindly manager in a large telecommunications company. Peter believed he had to coat bad news to help employees swallow it. It’s by far one of the most common misconceptions I see in my consulting work.

After a period of observation and mentoring, Peter concluded that one of his employees, Brent, was ill suited to the technical work of his department. Brent had some wonderful attributes, but an objective, analytical mind was not one of them.

With his boss’s encouragement, Peter arranged to have Brent transferred to a less technically oriented department in the company. He then met with Brent in the hope of securing his consent. As I mentioned, Peter was a warmhearted gentleman and didn’t want to foist the transfer on Brent. He believed a sincere and supportive conversation would bring Brent to acknowledge his own deficiencies and see the wisdom of the reassignment. Peter wanted a meeting of the minds…a happy ending.

Their conversation was civil, compassionate, and comfortable. And monumentally unproductive. To Peter’s surprise, Brent thought he was doing just fine in the department, thank you very much. He believed he was learning and contributing more and more with every passing day. He appreciated that Peter was offering an alternative but politely declined, insisting he enjoyed his present position far too much.

Peter was caught completely off guard by Brent’s obvious misperceptions. He feared that challenging them would lower Brent’s self-esteem (heaven forbid). All Peter could think to do was repeat again and again how valuable Brent would be to the other department. Eventually and half-heartedly, Brent agreed to “think about it.” It was the only concession Peter could extract. The conversation that was supposed to make everyone happy ended in a state of muddy inconclusiveness.

Peter was benevolent but impotent. The premium he placed on cordiality and consensus obscured the message he needed to deliver. The worst part was that Peter’s “compassion” amounted to a grave disservice to Brent and to the organization. By creating the illusion of a choice, Peter misled Brent. In his attempt to spare Brent’s feelings, he created complications and confusions that delayed the transfer. It also frayed Brent’s nerves and his own and caused his superior to question his effectiveness as a manager. It was about as self-evident an example of the compassion paradox as you could ever hope to see.

I had been retained by the company as a management consultant during a period of corporate growth and accelerated management development. It was in this context that Peter’s boss asked me to meet with Peter to help get the matter back on track. Peter and I were no strangers to one other. Some time back, he had been denied a promotion that he believed he deserved. The powers that be at the time considered him a strong candidate but thought he needed more seasoning. He and I met for the first time while he was in the throes of that disappointment. He was annoyed and hurt by the decision but hung in, worked hard, and kept his eyes open for a second chance.

Now in a management role, he was paddling too carefully, making no waves. He knew his conversation with Brent had gone wrong, and he’d done some thinking about it. He explained to me that his “negotiations” with Brent had convinced him more than ever of the wisdom of a transfer. He knew it was up to him to make it happen but couldn’t envision the best way to persuade Brent.

I asked him if he remembered how he felt when his promotion was denied. He smiled sheepishly. “I felt horrible.” I asked him how he got over it. “I moped for a while and then I just sucked it up and applied myself.”

“Did it turn out all right? Are you happy with where you are today?”

“Well until this, very much so!”

The point was made for both of us: Time is a great healer. Brent too would survive. I said, “It’s time for you to suck it up again and do your job! This isn’t a negotiation. It’s a management decision. And one you say you’re convinced is the right one. If you mean it, then be respectful of Brent. Let him know the decision has been made.” Peter was taken aback by my directness, but it also gave him a fresh perspective with which to climb out of his hole.

Instincts Are Not Enough

Ultimately, Peter made a specific plan for his next conversation with Brent. He worked out the words that would get his points across simply and unmistakably. He knew there would be some uneasiness, but he also knew the transfer was in all parties’ best interests. He told Brent directly that he was being transferred and otherwise handled the situation firmly and evenhandedly.

In the process, Peter learned that his naturally gentle disposition was a virtue only so long as it didn’t sabotage his message. He discovered that management is work. Many of its requirements do not come naturally. A manager’s instincts and reflexes aren’t enough. The job also takes practice, self-reflection, and discipline It was a lesson that would alter Peter’s approach to management dramatically in the years to come.

Watch deliberate managers handle difficult conversations. They aim to speak clearly and frankly enough to carve a path to change while protecting their relationship with their employee. That’s what Peter failed to do in his first several hours of belabored conversation with Brent. The truth is, some degree of discomfort sets the stage for change. The trick is not to avoid it but to manage it head on. When you don’t dance around the hard communications, you make it evident to your employee that criticism is as natural a part of the relationship as gratitude and appreciation. It lets the employee know that moments of discomfort – while never exactly welcome – are certainly survivable and uniquely valuable.

Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz have been consulting to managers and organizations for 35 years. Over that time, they’ve worked extensively with the waste industry. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected]. This article was adapted from their book, The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide, available on For more information, visit