Tell Them What’s Wrong

YOU CAN’T EXPECT ANY WORKER to change an unsuccessful behavior unless you tell him what he’s doing wrong and how to fix it. But most people avoid giving corrective feedback.

Why is this so? Correcting someone’s behavior is confronting to both parties. Most people don’t take criticism very well. And they can’t absorb any kind of feedback if it tears them down or threatens their self-confidence or self-esteem.

Negative reactions to feedback in the workplace may be privately held (tears or sullenness) or displayed publicly (bad-mouthing and other forms of acting out). Most of us are so loath to trigger these potential consequences that we avoid them by procrastinating, pretending, or soft-pedaling.

Corrective feedback is an essential management responsibility. So here are some suggestions for improving your current feedback practices to make it easier on both parties and produce the needed modifications in behavior or performance.


  • Making small corrections as they occur should be standard operating procedure. This kind of feedback can be relatively easy to give and take if both the tone and content are appropriate: “If you could try it this way…,” or “Here’s how we like to do it….”

  • Before you ask employees to change, consider whether it’s possible to modify the situation around them. For example, a relatively small change in schedule may alleviate a tardiness problem.

  • Pigeonholing is for birds, not staff. Don’t assume that all employees react the same way. Knowing something about each employee’s goals and skills, and how each may respond to correction, will help you deliver feedback that is more likely to stay on target and pay off.


Many managers delay giving feedback until the critical time has passed. Others think they are “sending messages” by their actions or demeanor instead of directly expressing their expectations or views. If these tactics sound familiar, it may be useful to look at what’s behind the avoidance.

  • Identify your own emotional state. Recognizing your own feelings and concerns about an upcoming situation will take you a long way toward neutralizing them so you can choose how to deal with each possible outcome.

  • Don’t try to give feedback when you’re frustrated or aggravated by the worker in question. Venting your anger on an employee is the business equivalent of kicking the cat. Nothing is accomplished besides demonstrating that you have power and he doesn’t. Outbursts leave an indelible negative impression on employees.

  • Avoid either overblowing or trivializing consequences. State them matter-of-factly. Extremes will wreck your credibility. And no bluffing is allowed. Don’t ever promise what you can’t deliver.

  • Make sure you’re not giving the employee too much to absorb in a single discussion. A laundry list is a ticket to failure. Most people can’t change more than one or maybe two behaviors at the same time.

  • Keep your business goals in mind as well as your priorities for this employee, so you’ll know what to leave for another time — or dispense with altogether if the change you want really isn’t that important.

  • Plan periodic follow-ups to check on the employee’s progress.

  • If you’re apprehensive about a pending feedback discussion, review the situation with a trusted colleague who can help you see aspects you may have overlooked.


Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, work on (struggle, if necessary) caring about the person as well as the performance. The truth always comes out in some way, and if you couldn’t care less about an employee, that will come across and damage both the employee’s reception and your working relationship.

  • Focus on the possibility of future success instead of past failures. You can anticipate negativity and a sense of hopelessness in response to “Despite your good intentions, nothing you’ve tried so far has seemed to work.” You’re more likely to get both compliance and success with “Here’s what I want you to try over the next two days.”

  • Don’t harp if you’re not getting your point across. If the discussion starts sounding repetitive, it means one or both of you got stuck. Acknowledge what is happening, commit to reconvene after you’ve both had time to think about it, and cut it short.

  • Never accuse employees of not paying attention or not trying hard enough if they don’t seem to understand you. They may be temporarily deafened or impaired by feelings and emotions, no matter how willing they may be to change what they’ve been doing.

  • Validate that you’ve heard and understood the worker’s point of view. This is a form of active listening that demonstrates both respect and caring, and reduces the possibility that she will withdraw or tune you out. But be careful not to agree if you don’t.

  • You don’t need to be so tough. You’re no less of an authority if you sound gentle and understanding, and you increase the likelihood of at least a neutral reception.

We know from experience how hard it is to change our own behavior. Just because you’re working on your delivery doesn’t mean your employees will automatically start changing their reception or reactions. And don’t be surprised if it takes more than one feedback session on the same topic to make your point, have the point accepted, and begin to produce results. One drop of rain on a dry plant is never enough for growth.

LIZ KISLIK, president of Liz Kislik Associates, can be reached at 100 Merrick Road, Suite 505E, Rockville Centre, NY 11570, or by phone at (516) 568-2932.

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