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Tough TALK

Successful managers are great handlers of stress. But even the best run into the occasional challenge.

How are you at handling things in your feedyard when the going gets tough? To find out, imagine how you'd respond to these three, real-world challenges. Then see what workplace psychologists say about each.

Challenge #1 — A customer, Mel, has called to complain about Andy, a rude employee.

Employee rudeness is inexcusable. But, empathizing with Mel isn't the same as dealing with his anger in a productive manner. In fact, expressing sympathy by saying you understand how he feels may increase his anger. Mel really wants evidence you value him as a customer in the form of constructive action.

Judith C. Tingley, a psychologist and president of Performance Improvement Pros, Phoenix, AZ, suggests moving right away to resolve any transaction left hanging.

“Go immediately to whether Mel's initial problem was resolved,” she suggests. “You might say: ‘I'll be happy to talk with you about Andy, but my main concern right now is if the problem you asked his help on is resolved?”

If the problem is still hanging, try to solve it right there on the phone, Tingley suggests.

If you can't do that, say something like: “I'll take care of this problem first and call you back to let you know what happened. Then we can talk more.”

At this point, Mel is likely feeling better because you've taken physical steps on his behalf. When you call back to report on your progress, chances are he will be less angry, and perhaps even flattered by your customer service.

At this point, Tingley suggests following up with: “Is there something else you'd like me to do relative to Andy's conversation with you?”

Respond in a way that avoids accentuating the conflict with Andy while assuring Mel you'll take action to improve your staff's performance.

Avoid saying you'll “talk with Andy about this.” Instead, agree your customer's interpretation is valid.

Finally, conclude by ensuring no issues are left hanging that might cause Mel to harbor bad feelings about your business. Communicate that you'll reinforce your business policies with Andy without making any statement that escalates the argument.

Challenge #2 — Mike, one of your sales people, has had three poor performance reviews and you must terminate him.

Letting someone go is stressful for both parties. For advice, we turned to Jeffrey P. Kahn, MD, a Manhattan psychiatrist and CEO of WorkPsych Associates, a consulting firm specializing in organizational behavior and employee productivity.

Kahn suggests getting a grip on emotions will help you be more empathetic and professional. That, in turn, can help obviate any hard feelings in Mike that may cause him to get back at your company through sabotage, lawsuit or just plain bad mouthing.

Easier said than done? Maybe. Kahn suggests starting by spending some time answering this question: “If I were Mike and were let go, how would I feel?”

If you'd feel angry about the firing, then you may go into the meeting expecting Mike to be angry, as well. Therefore, you may conduct yourself in a confrontational way that benefits neither your employee nor your company.

“You don't want to end up somehow saying Mike is a bad person,” Kahn cautions. “He almost certainly isn't, he just didn't perform to policy standards.”

On the other hand, suppose you fear such a meeting. You may well expect the same fear from Mike, therefore expressing yourself hesitantly. That's not good, either.

What's a good way to break the ice once the meeting starts? “Odds are Mike knows something's up even before he reaches your office,” Kahn says. “In many cases, the easiest way to conduct the meeting is to ask a question rather than make an announcement.”

Perhaps start with: “Mike, do you have a thought about why we're meeting today?” Mike likely will respond: “Well, I am afraid you're going to let me go.” You can agree sympathetically with him: “Unfortunately, yes, that's what this meeting is about.”

Of course, Mike may not suspect a termination or acknowledge it. In that case, move on: “We are here to talk about your future with the company.” That eases into the subject while avoiding a sudden shocking announcement.

At this point, you can cite the results of Mike's last three performance reviews as evidence for the unavoidable conclusion that it's time for him to leave the firm. Remind him of any severance benefits, and offer whatever help or support you can.

Concludes Kahn: “Some people have said emotional abilities are better predictors of business success than intellectual abilities. A termination meeting is an especially good example of when that can be true.”

Challenge #3 — Joe, a key front-office person, is driving away clients because of his bad breath.

Few situations are as difficult as the need to discuss personal hygiene. To start, put yourself in Joe's shoes: Wouldn't you take offense if your supervisor brought up this topic?

Letting things slide won't do. So how do you approach Joe without creating undue anger?

“It's always difficult to bring up a topic that can cause an employee embarrassment,” says Leil Lowndes, a New York-based communications expert. “But you must take action quickly.”

For starters, Lowndes suggests selecting your venue carefully. While an office setting is private, it may be too formal. So you may opt to discuss the matter in a more casual setting, such as over lunch, Lowndes says. Discussing matters over good food can help break the ice, she adds.

A conversation that revolves around how the employee can further improve his or her performance can be extended to how the employee interacts with customers.

“Stifle your embarrassment by reminding yourself this conversation is needed for the good of Joe and your organization,” she says. Stay in control and regard the conversation as a tool for increasing your communication skills.

Lowndes suggests you broach the topic by waiting until lunch is over, then casually break out a roll of mints you've secured for the occasion. Take one yourself, show the roll to your companion and offer to share: “I always take one of these to keep my breath fresh. Would you like one?”

This opening line avoids a direct confrontation while allowing Joe to pick up your subtle hint. In the best of situations, he will respond in the affirmative and ask if you'd noticed his breath. This provides an opening for a more direct discussion of how such a condition can affect his interaction with customers and his career.

Come prepared, however, for an unpleasant alternative. Joe may refuse your offer, and perhaps take offense. Lowndes cautions against making any sign of embarrassment or regret. Rather, immediately make your communication a little more direct.

“We all need to watch ourselves,” she says, even more so in our situation where we work in such close quarters and meet so many customers.”

By this time, Joe will have gotten the point, though he may be so embarrassed and angry he becomes confrontational. Allow Joe to let off steam, emphasizing that you're discussing the topic for his own good, as a continued personal hygiene problem will affect his career.

Phillip M. Perry is a New York-based writer specializing in management and legal issues.

More Resources

  • “How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships,” by Leil Lowndes. How psychology and body language can enhance communications. Mc-Graw-Hill, 2003. $14.95.

  • “The Power of Indirect Influence,” by Judith C. Tingley. A guide to effective communications and subtle techniques for influencing others. AMACOM, 2000. $17.95.

  • WorkPsych Associates, New York, operates two free email discussion groups for managers and human resource professionals. Subscribe to “Executive Emotion,” or “Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace” by visiting, and clicking on “Handbook, Publications and Listservs.”

  • “Mental Health and Productivity in Workplace,” by Jeffrey P. Kahn and Alan M. Langlieb. A manager's guide to identifying, understanding, preventing and resolving individual and organizational mental health problems in the workplace. Jossey-Bass, 2003. Price: $75.