Do Your Employees Need Sensitivity Training?

One tactic to teach is to put the solution first rather than the criticism.

It isn’t hard for me to get agitated and rattled by communications that many others wouldn’t bat an eye at. I have had the experience of receiving an e-mail asking me to “explain my rationale” for doing this or that, and, whatever the intention of the sender, it has made me explode inside. The tone, and invocation to “explain my rationale,” made it feel like a personal attack or dig—as if my competence was being questioned.

That kind of reaction tags me as a sensitive person. It’s easy to dismiss the kind of agitation people like me frequently experience by saying to yourself, “She’s just sensitive.” The problem with doing that is the possibility that there are many others just like me—easily provoked to anger and dismay by communications that rub us the wrong way. Most of us are smart enough not to let you see our irritation, but the unhappiness of such communications builds up over time, and may lead a high-performing employee to look elsewhere for work. The importance of a sensitive person working with other sensitive people—who know how to ask questions in a respectful, non-threatening way—can’t be underestimated.

In some cases, sensitive people are driven to suicide by what less sensitive employees would interpret as run-of-the-mill workplace interactions, according to a study out of West Virginia University. “Perceived low-grade forms of workplace mistreatment, such as avoiding eye contact or excluding a coworker from conversation, can amplify suicidal thoughts in employees with mood disorders,” a study by Kayla Follmer, assistant professor of Management, and Jake Follmer, assistant professor of Educational Psychology, reveals. Their findings are published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The authors recommend providing greater access to mental health resources to employees. I think that’s a good thing to do, but I also think employees could benefit from an understanding of sensitive communications, and how to construct an e-mail or make a request in a way that it will be received without offense.

One tactic to teach is to put the solution first rather than the criticism. That means that instead of asking the employee to explain his or her rationale, you ask the employee to do whatever it is you think would make the project better. Then, after making your suggestion, you could ask, “Let me know if you have any thoughts on other ways we could do this. I was concerned that…”

My feeling, and that of many other sensitive people, is that I would rather you give me your ideas for how to make something better, rather than criticizing without solutions posed. I always feel like saying (and sometimes do): “Let me know how you would like me to alter this, and I will be glad to do that.” I have no desire to get into a combative back-and-forth, or a debate about minutia that usually means little (maybe nothing!) to me. I would rather go straight to the proposed solutions or improvements.

I had a friend, who came up with a great idea for an article at a publication where she worked, and instead of focusing on the substance of her article idea, the editors on the call with her immediately leaped to their criticism of her proposed headline. The call quickly turned contentious, and my friend lost her temper, and told them to forget it. Fast forward a few months later, and articles on that very topic have been widely published. After that unpleasant, tension-filled call, my friend lost her job. The manager who gave her the news didn’t cite the recent interaction as the reason for her termination, but it might have been the final straw. Maybe they had gotten tired of what they perceived to be her over-sensitivity. All of that could have been avoided if they had focused on the positive and the solution first, backing their way into the criticism. They could have said: “Wow, that’s an interesting idea! I think there’s some potential there—we could explore doing a piece on that. I think, though, that we might want to tinker with that headline. Let us give that some thought and get back to you.”

I manage my work with others by always putting my solutions forward first. For instance, when a contributor to my publication sends me a draft, I could send it back marked up with red lines, comments, and complaints. Instead, I simply fix everything I think needs improving and send it back to the contributor to approve or send back with their own newer version. I like to go straight to the solution, and let them tell me what they think of my solution. It’s a faster way to work that reduces friction.

Do you incorporate lessons on sensitive communications to employees, so messages are received with solutions in mind first and criticisms second?