Are You Using the Magic Words?

by  John Stoker  |  Leadership Coaching
Are You Using the Magic Words?

Recently a vice president of human resources shared with me that he had been approached by another senior executive who was having trouble with a particular employee.

When he asked her what the problem was, the other executive informed him that her employee was just not doing the work that was required.

In response to her query he asked her, “Are you using the magic words?” Somewhat puzzled she answered, “I guess not because nothing has changed.” Then she asked, “If you don’t mind sharing, what are the magic words?”

What are the magic words? The magic words are, “You are not meeting my expectations.” You can’t expect people to give you what you want if they don’t know what is expected.

Using the magic words is becoming more and more of a necessity as various industries grow and evolve. In many instances, the job that an individual was hired to do has changed or morphed into a number of different tasks and requirements that the individual may no longer be capable of completing.

When someone is not meeting your expectations, it is absolutely critical that you clearly state what you need them to do and recognize that they may not have realized that your requirements are not being met. Sometimes this occurs because the job has changed and you assume that they understand those changes. At other times, priorities change and you assume that the individual understands how to adapt given those changes. And sometimes an individual’s lack of awareness arises because the manager has failed to hold a conversation that is long overdue.

Whatever the reason behind someone is not meeting your expectations, here are a number of suggestions that may help you manage this difficult conversation with positive effect:

  • Ease Into The Conversation – Whatever you do, you don’t want to begin with the magic words. That would be like dropping a bomb. Doing so would create emotion and defensiveness on the part of your listener that would end the conversation from the beginning.
  • Take a coaching approach – Begin by asking the individual to identify and assess the current challenges they are facing. Then move to your evaluation of their performance by sharing the data of the impact that their performance has had. You will also want to increase their awareness by asking them what they might do differently to achieve their goals. Allow them to offer suggestions for improvement as a way of identifying how you might best support them. If you believe there is any doubt as to the impact of their performance, then you need to use the magic words.
  • Expect The Unexpected – Don’t be surprised if the magic words take them completely by surprise. If they can hardly believe what they are hearing, they might respond in one of two ways: they may say nothing or they may ask you if you can furnish specific examples of what they have or haven’t done that would provide further support for your statement.
  • Initiate Their Learning – If they say nothing, then you need to ask them, “Would you like to understand in detail what my specific expectations are that are not being met?” Hopefully they will ask for clarification, but if they don’t, then you need to initiate their understanding of the current situation. You do that by moving to a discussion of what they can do to meet your expectations.
  • Be Prepared – You will need to prepare to clearly and specifically share your expectations. You should also be prepared with specific examples of times when you gave direction or instruction, and they did not carry out or complete the instructions as requested. You also need to be prepared to share exactly what your expectations are going forward or what exceptional performance may look like. If you do not prepare to hold this conversation with added clarity, then you cannot expect them to change or know exactly what to do.

    You should be prepared to speak in a kind, matter-of-fact, detailed way and invite a conversation. This should not be an interrogation or lecture where the individual feels reprimanded or belittled. This should be a conversation where the individual comes to understand what is expected and for you to understand what is going on with them. It is entirely possible that you will discover that the person didn’t meet expectations because they misinterpreted your directions, didn’t have the needed resources, were intimidated or afraid to ask questions, or couldn’t admit they needed help for fear of looking incompetent. And, it will make a difference how you handle the conversation if you are presenting this information to the employee for the first time, or the second or the third.

  • Check Their Understanding – Once you believe that you have been clear, ask them a number of questions that will help you understand if they have thoroughly understood your expectations. Just don’t clarify your expectations and then assume that they have understood you. If you do this, you may not find out that you have been misunderstood until they deliver on a specific project, and it is not what you wanted. Take the time to understand their understanding.
  • Expect Them To Become Emotional – When people work hard and don’t receive any kind of feedback that their work is not up to expectation, they may naturally feel violated or ambushed by what you are telling them. This establishes the necessity of looking at how you are managing this individual and becoming more aware of whether you are providing the kind of feedback on a regular basis that will allow them to improve and develop into the kind of performer that you expect. If on the other hand, you have been providing regular updates about their performance, then the magic words should come as no surprise to them. Then the conversation can take a course of exploring a number of developmental options to move forward.

    If they react emotionally, remember that asking questions to understand the meaning or source of their emotions is one of the easiest ways to defuse their defensiveness. Asking questions forces them to the logical, rational part of their brain while reducing their heightened emotional state. It also allows you to understand their perspective. Additionally you know that to be effective that you must remain calm and in control if they become highly emotional in the situation. Let them work through their own feelings. Being emotionally intelligent during this conversation is an absolute must. (You can find more about emotional intelligence at “How can you increase your emotional intelligence?

  • Assess The Fit – You will need to assess whether the job has changed to the point that the individual is no longer able to make the contribution that you need them to make. Take the time to assess if the individual’s skills and capability can be improved or upgraded or not. If not, then you will need to decide what adjustments need to made to improve your success.
  • Be encouraging and positive
  • – This type of conversation is not easy to hear. If the individual can make the adjustments to improve their performance, then express confidence in them and their ability to do so. It is highly motivating to hear that someone believes that they can and will be successful. However, these types of positive expressions need to be sincere and honest in their intent.

  • Offer Your Support – Finding out if there are missing gaps in education, understanding, or resources goes a long way in helping a person feel like you want to help them be successful, rather than just being critical.

Asking the magic words is a critical part of helping to improve performance. If done in the right way with the intent to help people be successful, it can be a powerful tool in helping people achieve their full potential.

Clearly sharing your expectations is the first step to helping the individual to grow and develop and to achieving the results that you really want.

What magic words have you found effective?
Photo Credit: Fotolia Nonwarit

About The Author

Articles By john-stoker
John Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. He has been in organizational development work for over 20 years helping leaders and individual contributors to learn the skills to assist them in achieving superior results. He has experience in the fields of leadership, change management, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  30 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, John – very interesting post:)

I really enjoyed the entire essay, especially the step-by-step approach to clearly illustrating how to approach the sometimes delicate task of clarifying expectations.

One phrase that really stands out for me is when you said “If they react emotionally, remember that asking questions to understand the meaning or source of their emotions is one of the easiest ways to defuse their defensiveness. ”

Too often, I think we react to emotional responses by attempting to defend what we said that spurred the emotional response, which does not usually help the situation.

We also tend to assume that we know why they reacted as they reacted, but emotions are more complex than visible behavior. We can easily see a person’s face get red and hear the tone of their voice. Understanding why the red face and the angry tone is a whole other issue.

Your wise counsel to focus on questions (possibly the single most valuable tool in a leader’s toolkit) and try to find out why a person is reacting is gold, in my opinion.

I always appreciate your thoughts and words – thanks for continuing to share them with us.


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