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Direct > indirect when it comes to communication

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Early in my management career, there was a person in my team who dressed inappropriately for work.

It was an issue, because they often met with clients and hence weren’t representing our company in a way consistent with our brand and values.

It was also an issue, because I’d become aware that others had noted and talked about it (it was pretty outrageous sometimes, so impossible to miss!), which felt unfair on the offender.

I didn’t want to have a direct conversation with the person. I told myself this would be too uncomfortable for them, so best be indirect.

Hence I sent an e-mail to my whole team reminding them of our dress code and why it was important.

Some of the team quickly e-mailed me back (but not the one person with the issue), concerned that they were the issue and double checking their choice of dress.

But that one person never spoke to me about their choice of dress. And they didn’t stop dressing inappropriately.

Was that their fault? A little – the written and unwritten dress codes were clear and consistent.

Was it my fault? Totally. Whether the dress code was clear or not, once I became aware of the problem, it was on me to address it effectively.

The truth was that I wasn’t avoiding the conversation to protect the other person from discomfort (that was just a clever story). I was avoiding it to protect myself from the discomfort.

And that was selfish of me.

Because all that happened instead is I created some anxiety amongst the more conscientious members of my team, while doing nothing to change how we presented to our clients or to stop the talking behind this other person’s back.

I think sometimes, what if that had been me? What if I was walking around totally unaware of mistakes I was making, but no one had the courage – no one had the kindness – to talk to me directly about it. It’s awful to think about.

So, if you want to be helpful to both the individual and the team, be kindly direct to people where you see opportunities for them to improve.

If they then choose to disregard your advice, then they’ll sink or swim based on those choices. But it won’t be because you didn’t step up as a leader.

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