How to Shut Down Fake Talk

BY C. Lee Smith
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Is fake talk a problem for you when communicating with your direct reports? Do you know what the term fake talk means? We learned all about why it happens and how to fix it in our Manage Smarter podcast with John Stoker, the founder and president of DialogueWORKS and the author of the book, "Overcoming Fake Talk."

Defining Fake Talk

Dead end conversations have probably happened to you more than you want to admit. You had a one-​on-​one with your employee and believe you agreed on something they’ll deliver to you at a specific time. Let’s say you’re counting on getting sales results from them by the third of each month so you can quickly make necessary changes to rep assignments. The third of the month comes and goes. Maybe you give your employee another day, thinking they need extra time. Or, perhaps you’re not up for pushing them hard and upping their stress level.

After another day or so, you have to take action. You’re counting on this employee to deliver the goods. When they don’t come through, you have to find out what’s wrong. Don’t do the work for them. Instead, have a conversation and find out why the assignment has turned into such an issue. It’s clear your first conversation was fake talk, so you’ll need to take specific steps to have a better outcome next time. Here are Stoker’s tips.

Employee Resistance

In researching his book, Stoker categorized the reasons people fail to communicate the problems they are having with work assignments into five groups.

Job Loss: Your employee joined the organization believing they could deliver what was asked of them. But some assignments prove overwhelming. As you sit with them and quickly sketch out what you expect, a lump is growing in their throats. They don’t quite get what you want, but they’re afraid to ask for more details. Why? Their biggest fear is that they’ll get fired.

Speechless: In some cases, your team member is so confused, they’re not sure what to ask. So, they don’t say anything at all. They sit at their desk and try to work out the assignment on their own, long after they’ve missed the deadline.

Hurt Feelings: Some employees worry that they’ll hurt your feelings if they start asking questions about the assignment you’ve given. Maybe you’re sitting at your desk, smiling and telling them you’ve created this project just for them and it took you a while to do so. That attitude sets up a situation for the employee who doesn’t want to create friction in the relationship, especially if they think you have a fragile ego.

Conflict Avoidance: In some organizations, employees whisper about the boss. Specifically, the internal CIA might be all about how the boss has a short fuse. If your employee believes that you’ll blow up at them if you ask for more guidance on a project, you can count on the work not getting done in a timely manner. The last thing they want to do is engage in a negative interaction with you.

Likeability: Some employees, often those on the younger side, want to be liked. They might confuse being likeable with being competent. These people worry that voicing their true opinion will result in co-​workers or managers liking them less. They may immediately see a problem with a task you’ve assigned. And they figure you should have seen it, too. Meanwhile, the work doesn’t get done.

Manager Action to Fix Fake Talk

In most of these situations, the manager must take action to cut down on fake talk. Don’t quickly give an assignment, assume the employee knows what to do and leave them hanging. Follow the advice of Jan Allen, who recommends asking the employee to repeat the specific steps they’ll take to complete the job. This process is invaluable, especially if this is a new assignment. Listen carefully and interject if the employee has missed a key part of the assignment.

If people worry that you’re going to blow up at them, work on curbing your emotional outbursts. It’s okay to reveal that you know you have this issue and that you’re working on it. Letting others know that you’re not superhuman puts them at ease. They’ll be less afraid to approach you.

Like many other industry experts, Stoker advises managers to work on their body language. It’s never appropriate to pound on your desk when a team member says something you don’t like. Keep any stabbing hand motions under control. Nobody appreciates being pointed at in an accusing manner.

The most important communications advice we can give in terms of avoiding fake talk is to understand each team member’s style. They may be nodding when you assign them a task and you may believe they understand what you want. In truth, they might be nodding because they want you to end the conversation so they can process what they heard privately.

To understand each team member’s communication style, refer to the results of the sales assessment test you gave during the hiring process. For example, the DISC system maps behavioral traits as: dominant, influence, steadiness and compliant. If you have generally dominant behavioral traits during your interactions with others at work, you may easily intimidate an employee with a compliant behavioral style. In those cases, circle back around with this employee a day or two after giving an assignment and encourage them to ask questions which may have come up in the process of starting the project.

Remember that fake talk often begins with the manager. And only the manager can stop it.