HR Management & Compliance

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today

Employment law attorney Michael Maslanka reviews Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today by Susan Scott, which he finds a useful tool for HR communication.

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today by Susan Scott is full of good HR advice, and I found especially interesting her tips on having a “fierce” conversation with an employee when you need to change his behavior.

First of all, “name the issue.” When you talk with an employee, state simply: “I want to talk with you about the effect ‘X’ is having on ‘Y.'” Don’t say: “I need to talk to you about the effect ‘X’ is having on ‘Y.'” The first sentence communicates strength and openness; the second communicates weakness and lecturing. Next, drill down to a specific example that illustrates the behavior you want changed.

Scott says that too many conversations never clarify what’s at stake. Both the manager and the employee leave the issue hanging. Her advice? Use the words “at stake .” These words deliver an emotional impact: “I am deeply concerned because I feel there is a great deal at stake.” She says the same idea should flow into what will happen if the unacceptable behavior continues. Be clear: “If nothing changes, you could lose your job.” She says you don’t need to sound tough in delivering the message, and always be respectful.

Scott recognizes the realities of the workplace — a supervisor giving the talk could partially be at fault for the situation being addressed. If so, don’t run from that fact; acknowledge it. She suggests saying something like, “I wasn’t clear with you about due dates and the implications when they’re missed. I want to correct that now.” But she cautions not to go that route if you’re clean. She suggests self-examination but also warns not to be too quick in declaring yourself totally innocent.

All of this leads to the final message: Communicate positive intent by closing with “I want to resolve this issue.” Scott believes the word “resolve” imparts positive connotations. She also recommends giving the person you’re speaking to an opportunity to respond along the way. Otherwise, they’ll be mentally preparing their response while you’re talking and not really listening to you. Say something like this: “Please tell me what’s going on from where you sit. I want to understand your perspective and learn your thoughts.”

Here’s one suggestion as an add-on. Think about starting off by telling the employee what the conversation is not about, as in, “This is not about you being fired but about how you treat your administrative assistant.” Otherwise, the employee will start filling in the gaps with what she thinks may be going on and won’t listen to your message.

Scott identifies several danger zones. Specifically, she advises that you avoid the following:

  • using too many “pillows” (in other words, don’t soften the message so much that the employee is clueless about what you’re trying to communicate);
  • mentally writing the script in advance (too often, we don’t engage in fierce conversations because we mentally decide what will happen, throw up our hands, and decide not to have the talk); and
  • taking the conversation as an opportunity to get stuff off your chest.

Finally, engage in “perception checks” by paraphrasing what you think the other person is saying. For example, “May I tell you what I’m hearing? I want to make sure I’ve understood you.” Stay away from hackneyed phrases like “Help me understand.”

This is a first-rate book, and Scott covers lots of other HR issues, from performance appraisals to employee engagement and how to hold employees accountable. Take a read.

Michael P. Maslanka is the editor of Texas Employment Law Letter and managing partner in the Dallas office of Ford & Harrison LLP. You can reach him at

1 thought on “Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today”

  1. We have a prepared ‘script’ for disciplinary conversations. While the supervisor doesn’t have it in front of them during the conversation, we encourage the supervisor to rehearse it aloud as many times as it takes to get comfortable with the language.

    The script is being rewritten today. Thanks Mike!

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