Addressing management issues

Being diplomatic without sacrificing the message

My manager has told me that I am too assertive and that I border on being
aggressive. She said that I need to be more diplomatic. I am very
effective in getting positive outcomes from my team. How can I be more
diplomatic (and, therefore, less assertive and aggressive) without
sacrificing the message? I asked my manager this question, and she said,
“Just try harder.”

A Good communications skills are essential for the successful manager. You must be
able to get your message across and empower the receivers. You also need
to be diplomatic. Deliver your message in a manner that honors the
person receiving it. Honoring means being sensitive that you are dealing
with a person that someone loves (e.g., someones mother, father, son,
or daughter). It does not mean that you have to like the person.

Alton Sturtevant points out, “It sounds like you
may have a dominant personality trait as defined by some
trait-evaluation models. The owner of this trait tends to be very
straightforward with little or no sugar coating applied when approaching
most situations. I am one of these types and tend to get right to the
point. Our interactions tend to skip pleasantries in conversation. We
are not malicious, just to the point. This does come across as being
pushy or aggressive. I have been trying harder for 30 years as a
manager. One thing that helped me was a one-day training course our lab
conducted. The purpose of the training was to recognize the
management/personality traits of each manager and supervisor. The
managers were tested using the trait test, which categorized us into one
of four types: dominant, influencer, steadiness, and conscientious. The
training helped us to recognize our own traits, as well as those of our
fellow employees. We also learned how each of the four types best
receives incentives and disincentives to perform. The study sessions
involved group discussion and case studies to help us learn this
valuable management tool.”

Dr. Sturtevant adds, “Perhaps you should suggest
training along these lines to your manager to help you and your fellow
workers. If training is not available through your institution, you
should avail yourself of it on your own time and expense to polish your
management skills. This will make you a better manager and person, and
will pay off in promotions and satisfaction.”

According to Larry Crolla, “Since I do not know
your style of business, I will guess and say that being more diplomatic
may mean being more participative in your approach to your team. Instead
of saying this is the way I want it done, you can ask for suggestions on
how to accomplish a certain task or project. Also stand back and review
your actions after a meeting (e.g., analyze your gestures, actions, and
speech to see if they were aggressive). You may have to practice toning
down your assertiveness and give others a chance to participate. You
will find the truth of your actions from this personal analysis, if you
do it honestly.”

Marti Bailey points out, “Simply put, diplomacy
is the verbal art of pleasing or at least staying on good terms with
most people most of the time. This does not mean misrepresenting the
truth in order to keep people happy. But it does mean communicating in
such a way that people feel like their interaction with you has been
respectful and positive. The word verbal in the definition clearly
conveys that communication is basic to diplomacy. With this in mind, you
might think of diplomacy as the packaging for what you need to
communicate. Your manager is not alone in expecting more than just
positive outcomes. The road leading to the positive outcome is just as
important as the outcome itself. I believe your manager is asking you to
build and maintain positive relationships with your staff. Like it or
not, it is not enough to be skilled at everything except relationships.
When your boss uses terms such as too assertive and aggressive to
describe you, I would take this very much to heart. I think she is
looking for a softer, kinder you that still gets the effective outcomes
needed. Learning diplomacy skills will be beneficial not only in the
short term but also for preparing you to move to the next level if,
indeed, you are interested in advancement.

“So, how do you go about developing diplomacy
skills? I suggest you begin by realizing that working around, over, or
through people to get things done is no longer state of the art.
Instead, you need to work with people, letting them participate in the
problem-solving process, helping them to understand the viewpoints of
others, and moving them toward common ground so that everyone can buy
into the solution. Diplomacy requires treating people with utmost
respect. This can only be accomplished by mastering tact. Tactful people
do and say things kindly so that no one is offended. But tact is not
just saying things the right way. It is also practicing the right
behaviors. You can start yourself on the way to becoming a tactful
person by practicing the following:1,2

  • Get to know your staff and the jobs they are
    doing. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Build on their strengths
    and help them grow to overcome their weaknesses.
  • Be a team player. Help others who need
    assistance. Make sure credit goes to everyone who deserves it.
  • Be open to new ideas. Manipulating people or
    simply using the authority of your position to get them to accept your
    point of view may achieve the end result but will not build trust and
  • Avoid spreading gossip and negativity. Never send
    an e-mail to anyone that you would not send to everyone.
  • Do not criticize publicly. This is never acceptable.
  • Work through the chain of command. Always keep
    your boss informed. Do not solve important problems in a vacuum.
  • Use humor liberally to soften your image, but
    never make light at someone elses expense. Making fun of yourself
    occasionally makes it a lot easier for people to warm up to you.”

Bottom line. There will be a direct correlation
between the investment you make in building relationships with your
staff and your diplomacy skill level. Building these relationships will
take time. Do not ever consider being diplomatic a sign of weakness.
Becoming an office diplomat can add a whole new dimension to your
performance and effectiveness as a manager. Always show respect for the
other person when you talk with them, no matter what the message is.


  1. Accountemps. Practicing Diplomacy in the
    Workplace. Available at:
  2. 2. London, Manuel: Principled leadership and
    business diplomacy. Journal of Management Development.

Losing vacation time

The laboratory for which I work has the policy that only 40 hours (one week) of
vacation can be carried over to the next calendar year. Many of us will
not be able to take all of our earned vacation this year and will lose
it. We cannot take the time due to the hiring freeze and the extra work
we are doing with conversions of laboratories purchased in the past 18
months. Any suggestions?

A According to Alton Sturtevant, “Unfortunately, in todays healthcare
environment, doing more with less is more the rule than the exception.
That being said, people are not likely to continue to work in an
environment as described with the question. Employees and their
management should strive to schedule work and time off in such a way as
to allow everyone to take full advantage of his earned benefits. The
hiring freeze will tend to make it difficult to take multiple days off
in a row. A strategy to allow for using all vacation time in this
environment would be to take full and part days off during times that
are not so busy. As a manager, I would allow time off, even if others
had to work voluntary overtime. Senior officers in a company, of course,
frown upon this. When faced with this situation, I talked in advance to
the senior managers and explained that we may incur overtime allowing
for earned time off, which was approved.”

Larry Crolla advises, “Call the question in to
your human resources department and state the facts. An exemption may
need to be given this year because of what you stated as extenuating
circumstances. If human resources does not come to some adjustment with
the group, take your vacation and state you must take it or lose

Marti Bailey points out, “Responsibility for use
of earned vacation time is shared jointly between the employee and his
supervisor. If you have not already discussed your concerns about losing
vacation time with your supervisor, then you need to do so. If it is a
department-wide problem, or if your supervisor cannot resolve the issue,
then it needs to be bumped up to your laboratory manager. I would be
interested to know if any of you have requested vacation time and been
denied. This is a far different story than not having requested time off
because you think it will not be approved.

“The reality is that open positions, major
instrument and systems implementations, mergers and/or acquisitions have
become more the standard than the exception meaning that it is
likely that at least one of these situations could apply to you at any
given time. So, if you use these circumstances as excuses for not being
able to take vacation, you will be hard pressed to find a good time to
take off and just might let yourself slip into victim status. This can
occur when you choose to focus negatively on why you cannot take
vacation, instead of positively on how you can take vacation.”
Bottom line. Everyone needs to take vacation to
handle their personal affairs, as well as respite from the daily
challenges of work. The beneficial effects of time off from work are
well known. If you find that your vacation requests are denied and that
this will result in loss of your earned vacation time, contact your
human resources department to discuss a solution.

Christopher S. Frings is an internationally known consultant and speaker on the topics of leadership, managing change, time management, reaching goals, and stress management. His consulting firm, Chris Frings & Associates, is in Birmingham, AL.

 February 2004: Vol. 36, No. 2