There’s an axiom in communications that goes something like this: “If somebody misunderstands me, most likely it’s because I miscommunicated.”

In case I wasn’t clear, let me elaborate: The communicator “owns” the message, and is responsible for its successful transmission. As leaders, if we understand that we also “own” the consequences of the messages we communicate, we’re much more likely to craft them very carefully and make sure people react the way we intended.

This is particularly true when it comes to salary reviews, possibly the most delicate – and difficult – discussion we have to conduct as leaders.

There are two parts to conducting a salary review:

  • Figuring out the “right” amount to give an employee, and
  • Communicating the raise effectively.

Getting Part 1 right isn’t always so easy, but for now, let’s set it aside. So assume you’ve chosen a salary increase that’s fair by any objective criterion. No matter how fair the raise, Part 2 is still extremely tricky. If you’re unskilled at salary reviews you could blow the discussion and completely demoralize a high-performing employee.

So what’s the key to discussing salary effectively and getting the reaction you intended when you communicate a fair increase? The key is to recognize that salary discussions aren’t about managing money. They’re about managing expectations. Fact is, you could enter a salary review with near-zero chance of success if things you said – or didn’t say – in the past created unrealistic expectations.

Another way to think about salary reviews is to recognize that people don’t have logical reactions to their proposed raises. They have emotional reactions. And nothing creates more potential for anger and disappointment than expectations that are off the mark.

So what do successful leaders do? They start managing salary expectations during the interview process. They anchor candidates at a fair market wage from day one. They make it clear during the onboarding process that the company thinks long-term about its employees, including their salaries. At every salary review, beginning with the first, they anticipate the next salary review and signal what a reasonable raise might be next year if the company, and the individual, perform well.

The bottom line: Sometimes employees will be dissatisfied with their raises no matter what you do. But if they’re surprised, it means you haven’t done a good job communicating.

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