Tough Love At The Office

THE MANAGERIAL MOMENT OF TRUTH

The Essential Step in Helping People Improve Performance

By Bruce Bodaken and Robert Fritz

Free Press -- 182pp -- $22

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good A helpful how-to for dealing with problem employees.

The Bad Not the most fluidly written account, and some assertions lack supporting evidence.

The Bottom Line Required reading for managers who are uneasy when confronting subordinates.

Who among us hasn't witnessed the following scenario play out at some place we've worked? A manager, faced with a subordinate's chronic underperformance -- blown deadlines, a critical mistake in a report -- avoids confronting the problem employee. The supervisor at first chooses to work around the issue, shifting important assignments to others, who quickly become resentful of carrying a heavier workload. Finally, after allowing the situation to fester for far too long, the manager one day erupts in a heated confrontation that the employee didn't see coming and, given the lack of earlier warnings, feels is overblown. The explosion sparks a short-term improvement. But then the manager, feeling pangs of guilt over the outburst, backs off, and the offender eventually lapses into old ways. Hey, maybe that manager was you.

Bruce Bodaken and Robert Fritz argue that working around difficulties only creates a dysfunctional workplace. In their new book, The Managerial Moment of Truth: The Essential Step in Helping People Improve Performance, the authors assert that companies are far better off developing a culture where managers deal with problems, and problem employees, early and head-on. By teaching supervisors to identify and immediately tackle difficulties through a tough-love approach that revolves around "truth telling," companies can boost productivity by as much as 40%, they say. Regrettably, the authors offer no empirical evidence to back up this productivity claim. But they insist that such forthrightness has been one of the keys to the achievements of such companies as General Electric (GE ). "Truth is one of the most important competitive advantages there is in building a business," the authors write.

What's more, the authors assert that their "moment of truth" philosophy improves the performance of not only individual employees but of cross-functional teams and even senior management circles. That final impact might be unexpected, they observe, given that senior executives "do not actually work together" closely and often are most concerned with protecting their own positions and careers. Bodaken, the CEO of Blue Shield of California, boasts that his efforts to implement the moment of truth approach (which Fritz, an organizational consultant and his co-author, is credited with developing) has been a key to that company's rapid growth during the past decade. The duo are on to something: Moment of Truth may not be the most fluently written management book you'll ever crack, but it should be required reading for managers who have been uneasy when confronting underperforming employees.

How does the concept work? The authors define a managerial moment of truth as the point at which a supervisor realizes that a direct report is seriously screwing up. Then, they say, the manager must initiate a four-step process: First, have a discussion to arrive quickly at a mutual understanding that the problem exists. (The authors recommend that managers initially ask "yes/no" questions that get to the nub of the matter and prevent the employee from talking his way out of the jam.) Second, the two must analyze how things went wrong and, third, establish a corrective plan for the future. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the supervisor must take periodic steps to follow up and ensure that expectations are being met. These steps could take the form of face-to-face meetings, quick phone chats, or regular e-mail exchanges. "Ask the person to write you an e-mail describing the main points [of each interaction]. Their depth of learning will be apparent," they advise.

The authors concede that at some companies, culture shock and resistance to truthfulness could ensue. "Many organizations do have a subtle level of deceitfulness in which managers adopt implicit collective rules such as never argue with the boss, or never admit your own mistakes, or don't question data, or lower your goals so you won't fail," they say. The authors recommend starting slowly "to take the sting out of candor." Bodaken notes that at Blue Shield of California, managers often say: "'I need to have a moment of truth with you' as a way of acknowledging this is about learning, rather than about putting a team member on the spot." But the authors contend that once you've initiated this approach, good things follow, illustrating their message with case studies from such companies as BMO InvestorLine (BMO ) and American Woodmark (AMWD ). Bodaken and Fritz make a good argument that, rising to Jack Nicholson's famous taunt in A Few Good Men, workers and even whole companies can not only handle the truth but profit from it.

By Dean Foust

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