Managing a Venting Session
We recently discharged three supervisors who badly mismanaged their employees. When we announced the terminations, it felt like we unleashed a volcano of employee anger—at us, for letting the situation go on for more than a year.
We fear this internal tension will result in resignations. We’ve decided to hold a meeting in which the angry employees can discuss their concerns about the past. Our senior managers have committed to the idea of this meeting and refuse to consider any other avenue for allowing the employees to voice their concerns.
We don’t, however, have the funds to hire a trained professional to help us conduct this meeting. Can you give us some guidelines for our Employees’ Venting Session?
If you want a positive outcome, rename the session. Venting sets the wrong tone, encourages employees to blast you, and may lead many employees to avoid the session. Consider titling it Really Hearing Employees’ Concerns. Send out an advance email that lets employees know senior leaders plan to apologize for the past and will listen to the concerns so they can fix continuing problems.
Start the session by sincerely apologizing for the past and solidly establishing you’ve called this meeting for your employees’ benefit. Let your employees know you want to hear from them so you can avoid repeating your mistakes and can fix any continuing issues. Let your employees know how you’ll follow up with action or otherwise handle the concerns they raise.
Outline simple meeting guidelines, framed in terms of how they benefit your employees. Here are two—“so each of you can speak and be heard, we ask that when anyone is speaking, others don’t interrupt” and “so everyone can be heard, we ask the speakers to limit themselves to three minutes each.” You want an open discussion, not a free-for-all that leaves employees angrier than when the meeting started.
The apology each senior manager gives needs to be genuine and take responsibility. Heartfelt honesty moves an employer/employee relationship forward; hollow apologies such as “this wouldn’t have happened except…” statements fall short and fail to show you as managers “get it.” Don’t make an excuse, justify your behavior, or otherwise shift the blame from you as managers to the fired supervisors. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” You can find helpful information on how to apologize in http://bit.ly/3nuatbm.
During the meeting, acknowledge each speaker and write down the highlights of their concerns. While employees want to be heard, they also want to learn that their voiced concerns will be used to fix problems. Treat everything you hear as useful information. When an employee makes negative statements, don’t overreact, and don’t debate or challenge their statements unless you can provide accurate and specific information. Perceptions are real for the employee who puts them forward. You’ll find useful information on how to stay on track despite negativity in chapter 17 of Navigating Conflict, https://amzn.to/3rCKoWj.
To encourage participation, ask your employees open-ended questions that start with “what” or “how.” Use “please tell me more” or “what leads you to make that statement?” to clarify any comments you don’t understand. Avoid starting questions with “why” or “why do you think that?” as “why” questions feel accusatory and increase defensiveness and antagonism.
Before the session ends, each of your managers needs to do four things—apologize; let the employees know what the manager learned; thank the employees for their candor and outline at least one positive change that will result from the meeting. Follow your meeting with an email outlining the actions your senior managers will take to improve the situations employees voiced. You’ll find useful potential strategies you can implement in Chapter 8 of Managing for Accountability, https://bit.ly/3T3vww8.
Finally, although authentic apologies can cut through walls and restore trust, give your apologies as gifts you offer without expecting a reward. Some employees may not be ready to accept your apologies and may still express deep resentment. If this happens, continue to listen. Apologizing doesn’t give your management team a “get out of jail free” card nor erase the past. You need to view this meeting as the next but not the last step, and do better.
(c) 2023 Lynne Curry
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