Employee Relations: Diffusing a Tense Situation with Your Subordinate


You delegated an important project to one of your subordinates. You follow up periodically and realized that the given deadline was never kept. What you hear were excuses. Email messages were going back and forth and everywhere. When you got angry, he or she talks to your boss about you behind your back. So what can you do about it?

How you deal with the situation will demonstrate whether you have the difference that makes you a leader. The philosophy behind this technique is that there is never a perfect talent. We can only make the best use of the talents that we have. So other than talking to your boss about it, you will need to talk to your staff as well.

In a tense situation, Rosabeth Moss Kantler offers 3 steps : Empathize, Offer support, Inspire (Source http://blogs.hbr.org/kanter/2011/05/three-leadership-steps-to-defu.html). I have built on these 3 steps and came up with the following framework. It helps you answer your boss about what you are going to do about the incident. You can adapt it according to your assessment of the situation.

(1) Find out whether your expectations are understood – Describe what you will like to discuss with her or him about it? Then pay attention and listen

(2) Give her the benefits of the doubt – Ask her or him to clarify on her or his understanding of the impact of her actions.

(3) Seek to understand – Ask her or him about what obstacles or challenges is she or he is facing that prevents her of him from meeting your expectations.

(4) Ask for her or him for suggestions or recommendations on how she or he what can be done about the challenges or obstacles and how she or he can do it better the next time

(5) Gently point out the blind spots.

(6) If required, be prepare to make adjustments to or phase the expectations

(7) Give her or him support – Ask her or him what support does she or he needs from you. Examples:

  • Clearer instructions?
  • Earlier notifications?
  • Review workload?
  • Refocusing on her or his strengths?
  • Simplifying or streaming the process?
  • Provide her the benefits of your experience?

(8) Ask for her or his commitments – when, what and how she or he is going to do to meet the agreed expectations

(9) If applicable, ask for periodic review of the progress with her or him.

(10) Inspire – Find and point to the common ground. Reinforce her or his self-belief.