What is tactful behavior, and what’s the process of how to be tactful?
The dictionary definition of tact is an “adroitness in dealing with difficult or delicate situations,” usually in a way so as “not to offend the other person.” Thought of more directly, tact is the ability to tell the truth in a way that considers other people's feelings and reactions. It allows you to give difficult feedback, communicate sensitive information, and say the right thing to preserve a relationship.
All you need to do to understand the importance of learning how to be tactful is look at the modern moment. Companies are currently making decisions about return to office, hybrid work models, how often employees can work remotely, and more. There are a lot of different seismic shifts happening in this one series of decisions, but there’s also a ton of emotional context here. Some employees may not feel safe returning to an office; some may be anti-vaccine, and some may be decidedly pro-vaccine. Some might be angry at the company for once claiming “remote forever” and then pulling that concept back off the table. You could even call this moment “an emotional reckoning” around what managers want vs. what employees want, all with our various belief structures about health and individual rights mixed in.
Because of how complex and emotionally fraught this can get, everyone needs to be displaying some form of tact in the workplace (and in their personal relationships). You need to be able to communicate around a difficult, divisive issue -- and not offend. If you’ve ever spent 10 minutes on Facebook or another platform, you know that sometimes seems really hard to do.
What’s the process of learning how to be tactful, then?
We defined some of tactful behavior above, and as for why it would be important: it creates a greater sense of respect at work, especially if you’re a manager and consistently display tact with your employees. They respect you more, ultimately work harder for you as a result, and even the time working together seems to be more enjoyable. No one wants a bully or a micromanager as a boss, and no one wants someone who constantly offends them either. Tact underpins the entire work experience when done properly and consistently.
Communicating with tact also creates a “blue ocean” approach to your career -- because many managers and employees don’t communicate tactfully, you’ll stand out, and that can help you advance as a respected, engaged member of a team that others trust not to violate their psychological safety.
A lot of how to be tactful does come down to word choice. If you’re concerned about a colleague not getting enough done, you don’t tell them they’re “slow.” Rather, you’d talk about “ways to be more efficient.” If someone bombs in a presentation, you don’t tell them it was “awful” and “sloppy.” Instead, offer to work with them on crafting the next one step-by-step.
In a COVID-specific context, during a conversation about vaccinations, you might simply note that based on the information you consumed, you thought it was a good (or not a good) idea at the time for you. This is also an example of “de-escalating” a situation, which seems like a police term but has many ties to work. If you understand more about how to be tactful and general tactfulness with your colleagues, you can turn emotionally-tense moments into team growth moments.
There are many approaches around how to be tactful, including:
All of the above strategies will work. Beyond that, though, you need to understand the specific politics of where you work. What is the culture? How transparent is it? Who are the real decision-makers? How do they like to be presented with information? Who has their ear? How have they responded to certain ideas and feedback in the past? You need to know as much as possible about personalities and politics, because it will allow you to move away from topics or issues where “a win” is not possible, and the only likely outcome is being seen as tactless.
There’s a concept called “latitude of acceptance,” which is how far away from a core belief one can move. For example: “I hate fast food, it’s awful for you.” Some people will never waver from that. Others might say “I don’t like fast food, but it makes sense in some situations.” That’s a latitude of acceptance. It’s the same way with how to be tactful at work. Some people will never budge from a specific belief or position, so if you approach them and try to enable change, they will likely view you as tactless. If you approach other people with a new way of thinking about work and getting it done efficiently, they might embrace the change. It’s often about knowing your audience.
Again, many of the above strategies work both personally and professionally.
It takes patience, active listening, understanding of another person’s needs, empathy, and a level-headed communication style. It’s not always easy, no, but nothing about communication at work (or personally) is ever as easy as we think it should be.
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