Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When Things Go Wrong: Giving Correction

It's clear that they've never had to correct someone's behavior from how laid back this pud is.

One of the hardest things for a new boss to learn is how to give feedback to staff. If anyone tells you they had an easy time with it, either they are lying or they had a lot of coaching ahead of time. Well... I didn't have lots of coaching ahead of time, and I'm not going to lie to you. The truth is that I've had some missteps while talking to employees about their mistakes. And like I always try to do with my failures, I want to use it to help you avoid the same pitfalls

One major caveat: I have consciously waited to write this post until enough time has passed since the last conversation like this with someone who works for me. I know some of them read my blog regularly (*waving hello*), and I wanted to make sure none of those interactions were fresh in my mind while writing. This is very much written from a general perspective.

Without further ado, here are my rules of thumb for giving corrections:
  1. Avoid correcting someone when you're angry. I try to wait at least 24 hours, or longer if I'm still not calm. There will be times when I can't wait that long, so when that happens I take a deep breath and count to ten before starting. A bonus here is that waiting will give you time to think through what happened and consider alternatives.
  2. Avoid correcting someone in front of others. Most times the problem that needs addressing won't concern anyone else, and therefore won't be anyone else's business. Also, since you're trying to wait until you're calm to address an issue, it will be easier to arrange a time to talk one-on-one. If you absolutely cannot wait and cannot talk to the person away from others, be as respectful as possible.
  3. Don't just pull people into your office when there is a problem. You don't want to signal to others, in any way, that the conversation you're having is about correcting your employee's behavior. I make a point of taking to people in private about good things as well - especially important because my office walls are glass.
  4. Concentrate on behavior, not on personality. I've never done this to an employee because I've been on the receiving end of it way too often. You want to help them improve, not just make them feel bad about themselves. An example of behavior is "so I heard you said this thing," whereas an example of personality is "why are you so mean to John?"
  5. Explain why the behavior is a problem. Arbitrary rules are a no go for me, and should be for you. Same goes for "well, we've always done it this way" rules. Sometimes people won't realize why something is a problem, and will ignore a rule they don't understand.
  6. Understand that you may not (probably don't) have all the facts. If you walk up in the middle of a moment, you have no way to know what happened before. Even if you witness the whole incident, you don't know what lead to it. This admonition is especially true if someone is reporting a problem well after the fact.
  7. Always document these interactions. Even if it is the first such incident, even if you are sure it will never happen again, you need to be able to prove that you've had the conversation. You really never know when something is only the first of many problems to come. I learned my lesson with this the hard way. I recommend a follow up email to the person you had to correct, immediately after you meet, so that you also have a date/time stamp.
This is so important to me that I'm going to take another step and demonstrate all of the above in a made up conversation, with a very basic kind of problem, so you can see more of what I mean. (Imagine that our boss and our employee are already in a private space, and that both are relatively calm.)

Boss: I need to talk to you about what happened yesterday. When I got back from my meeting at the end of the day, your friend was behind the circulation desk with you and quickly left when they saw me. Can you tell me what happened and why?
Employee: I needed to show them something on my computer screen.
Boss: I can understand that, but we sometimes have private information showing behind the desk and privacy is very important here considering the sensitive information libraries sometimes hold. If this comes up again, please just turn the computer screen so that the patron can see.
Employee: I tried to do that, but I think the monitor might be broken because I couldn't get it to turn.
Boss: We'll reach out to IT today. From now on I need you to let me know about computer problems right away, okay?
Employee: Okay.
Boss: So, just to be clear, nobody but library staff or IT should be behind the circ desk, and you'll let me know about computer issues as they come up instead of later. Do you have any questions?
Employee: No questions.
Boss: Cool. I'm also going to email you a note about what we discussed. I am confident that this won't be an issue in the future, and I want to make sure we're on the same page about it. Thanks for your time.

One last thing: when you have your inevitable misstep with this kind of interaction, apologize when you're wrong and be sincere about it. How can you expect your staff to learn from their mistakes if you don't? 

How about you? Anything you would do differently? 


  1. I have had similar conversations with my staff as the example you provided. Open and clear communication is key. Many problems have been resolved because clear expectations have been defined.

  2. Additional coaching Qs I love: "does this feel fair?" "Do you know what's expected of you going forward?" "Is there anything I can do to better support you in this?"
    The other super useful thing to remember is that there's no right amount of time for these potentially difficult conversations to take. Doesn't have to be tidily resolved in 15 minutes flat & knowing that going in helps me to be appropriately caring & patient. ��

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  4. I like to ask them what they would've done differently if they could go back. Gives them a chance to let you know if they already knew there was an issue and it's quite empowering instead of feeling corrected. It also promotes reflection in work, which is important for us all. If they don't know what they'd do, it gives them a chance to ask for advice instead of feeling scolded and it provides a good teachable moment if they didn't know they took a misstep at all.