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How to Be Direct Without Offending

Years ago I had a boss whose nickname around the company was “the drill sergeant.” She had a reputation for being the kind of person who would be in your face the minute you screwed up.

Others in the company would often ask those of us on her team, “Don’t you just dread going to work each day?”

We always found these questions odd, since we really appreciated her directness. She was a lot more broadly gifted than she often got credit for in the larger organization. Yes, she could be direct. Yes, she raised her voice. Yet, she never offended me nor (to my knowledge) the other people she led.

Here’s how she was direct without being offensive:

She Played to Strengths

Yes, she got in our faces, but more often than not, she was pointing out the things we were doing well. She would often make time to give positive feedback, backed up with specific things she noticed we were doing well.

She also made a concerted effort to notice what people were good at and align work tasks with their strengths. This didn’t always work perfectly, but even when it didn’t, we noticed and appreciated her efforts.

She was a great example of Dale Carnegie’s principle, “Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.”

She Separated Praise and Criticism

She never used the lousy sandwich method of saying something positive, then criticizing, and finishing with something positive. When she had something good to say (which was most of the time) she said it and left it at that.

When she had something critical to say, she said just that. Occasionally with anger and a raised voice.

Yet, she never mixed the two. This resulted in lots of good stuff:

  • I felt that her praise was genuine, because it wasn’t only given before criticism (like a lot of people do).

  • I knew she cared about making me better.

  • Since she spent a lot of time pointing out strengths, I was much more willing to take her criticism to heart.

  • I always knew exactly where I stood.

She Played Fair

She was able to be very direct because she played fair with her directness.

First, she never got in our faces about something that we couldn’t have been reasonably expected to know or have developed at that point in our careers. Just the same, her directness was in full force when the same mistake was made twice or a member of her team wasn’t using tools readily available to them.

Second, she pushed hard when she perceived it could really help our careers. I well remember being instructed to call back a customer after I missed an opportunity to serve them better. I was ready to be done with it, but she wouldn’t let me walk away from it.

That second call was a game changer for me in how I handled every customer interaction going forward. She knew I could do better before I did and got me there faster.

Sadly, I only worked with her about nine months before getting promoted and transferred. While I initially thought I was ready for a new leadership style, within days I realized how much I missed hers. I’ve rarely had anyone else in my career who was as invested in the daily development of people than she was.

The Key Distinction

I’ve run into many people in my career who were direct, but few that used directness broadly as a strength.

The key distinction is that she didn’t just reserve her directness for a power trip when frustrated. Rather, she used directness broadly to confidently point out strengths, drive professional development, and fight fiercely for her team within the rest of the company.

I missed her terribly once I realized few other leaders did this well.

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