Sugarcoating – a modern phenomenon


When I was a little girl I loved traditional fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm and the like. Many of my books had the original storylines, before Disney or the like watered them down. There’s some of those stories I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read to my kids. Not because they’re too dark and scary, but because what they have been force fed about those same stories is so sugarcoated, the truth will probably devastate them.

I feel a similar watering down has been happening in workplaces. Years ago, the traditional command and control hierarchy gave bosses the power to be tough and tell it like it is. Employees just had to put up and shut up if they wanted to keep their job. Such management types still exist but their behaviour is no longer greeted by the respect it earned in the past. Thankfully the balance of power has now shifted. Clearly I don’t lament this happening, but bad news still needs to be delivered.

It’s understandable why some managers, particularly those who are new to the job, are fearful of this. Fearful they won’t deliver the message right. Fearful of the employee’s reaction (Anger? Defiance? Refusal?). Fearful of accusations of unfairness or bullying. So many things to consider.

Employees want to hear the truth, but sometimes the truth is hard to handle. It’s not advisable to tell employees that they need to “toughen up” but neither is sugarcoating the answer. Defined as “making something superficially attractive or acceptable“, it’s dressing an unpalatable truth up as something sweet in an attempt to make it easier to take. A foul tasting pill will be swallowed much more readily with a sugary outer coating. Apart from sugarcoating in real life isn’t that effective.

It’s important to note that sugarcoating, unlike it’s “tough” counterpart approach, is rarely carried out maliciously. It’s just a misguided attempt to sideline a difficult conversation that likely neither party is keen to happen. Unfortunately these good intentions are merely wasted as Sugarcoating does not lead to the intended outcomes. It creates confusion and ambiguity where clarify is required. It means a second bite is often called for, and that is sure to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

As usual, it’s more appropriate to meet in the middle ground. Prior to the meeting prepare to the level necessary to instil confidence. Try to generate rapport (if none or little exists) via body language rather than niceties. Deliver the facts straight up. Initiate a two way dialogue and invite questions. Understand the situation from the other’s point of view. While the bad news may not be welcomed, the approach will be.

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