We’ve all experienced it before: we sit down with an employee with every intention of providing specific instructions or discipline, but somehow, when the meeting ends, we find ourselves in exactly the same position as when we began. We stumble out of the meeting and retrace our halted footsteps to see how, exactly, we got so far off track. You, my friend, have just been fogged.
So what, exactly, is fogging? Fogging occurs when the other member of the conversation—in this case, your troubled employee—changes the subject in order to manipulate the discussion in their favor. The employee recognizes early on that this is probably not going to be a conversation that portrays them in a good light; they immediately work to change the subject and divert your attention. Say, for example, you ask Mike to meet you in the back room; when you sit down and bring up the subject of Mike’s recent tardiness, he immediately brings to light the fact that Sara has been late all week. Your conversation is immediately redirected to a completely different problem in the store and Mike’s apathy—the original subject of the conversation and the impetus for the meeting—is forgotten.
This situation has a variety of negative effects, even beyond the obvious consequence of distracting you from the subject. In addition to defeating the entire purpose of the meeting, this situation also completely changes the entire dynamic of the conversation—and your relationship. When the manager loses their course of thought, they lose control of the conversation. Fogging is not just a diversionary tactic, it’s an intentional reversal of power. The manager is no longer in control of the conversation or, in theory, their employees.
This is also a troublesome situation because it is one thoroughly vested in emotion. Rather than addressing the pertinent subject from a professional and detached perspective, the employee forces you to invest your emotions, along with theirs, into a different subject.
Fogging operates under a variety of guises:
1. Emotional distractions.
Rather than accept responsibility for their mistake or habit, the employee immediately distracts the manager with an emotional plea or breakdown. They draw you in with descriptions of familial problems or sick dogs and soon the conversation is lost in condolences; it almost seems cruel to revisit the true topic.
2. Blaming the manager.
This type of fogging is particularly disrespectful. The employee refuses to acknowledge the manager’s authority and demeans their position. If, for example, you’re trying to discuss the employee’s refusal to clean the bathroom, they’ll offer the rebuttal, “Well, you don’t clean the bathroom.” Not only does this situation inherently displace the power of the relationship by implying the absence of managerial roles, it also incites emotion— your anger!
3. Blaming other employees.
Just as when “Mike” distracted us by raising the subject of Sara’s flaws, it’s easy for our employees to divert our attention by bringing up their coworkers’ weaknesses. Of course, these are relevant concerns, just not at this time.
Now you can certainly recognize fogging, but how do you alleviate it? The solution is easier than you may expect. When an employee begins fogging your mind with different subjects or complaints, carefully acknowledge their words before repeating yourself. Their concern is valid, but now is the time for your conversation. Whether they try to incite your empathy or anger, stay calm and return to the subject at hand. It may seem awkward at first, but repeat yourself as many times as necessary until the conversation returns to the subject you originally tried to address. The employee will eventually realize that you’re serious and that you refuse to be distracted. The conversation is safely under your control once again.
Fog isn’t just a dangerous impediment to driving or a harbinger of inclement weather; it’s a huge stumbling block in improving employee performance. But now you can not only recognize fogging as it begins, you can wave it away as easily the vaporous cloud from which it gains its name.