Editor’s note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues — everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I have a young employee who has a bad habit that needs to be broken and I’m looking for input in how to help her with this. I had a similar problem when I was her age and had it pointed out to me in a way that was rather hurtful, which is something I’d like to avoid.
She’s been with the company for two years as a part-time employee while she was in college and was just promoted to full-time. I’m her supervisor, but not her manager. I’m responsible for her training, her schedule, and those types of things, but I’m not responsible for her performance reviews or discipline. I’m the “good cop,” so to speak.
Here’s the crux of the problem: when I tell her something or ask her to change how she does something (because it’s incorrect), instead of acknowledging the correction with an “okay, I understand” she gives me an argument. Last night, I asked her to do X instead of Y because Y was the wrong thing to do. She then proceeded to tell me why she did Y.
This isn’t a case of Y could have been the correct thing to do if I’d just listen to her. Y was wrong.
I know I need to have a conversation with her and address it, what I’m looking for is some advice in phrasing “knock it off” in a way that isn’t hurtful.
Well, first, good for you for giving her feedback (too many managers skirt around it) and for being thoughtful about how you go about it.
There are three keys to giving feedback well: be direct (don’t sugarcoat it or bury it in a conversation about something else), be specific (don’t make her guess at what you mean), and be kind (don’t act like she’s personally offended you by her behavior or like she’s an idiot, and be emotionally intelligent about how she’s likely to experience it on her side).
In your shoes, I’d say something like this: “Can I give you some feedback about something? I’ve noticed that when I ask you to do something a little differently, like yesterday with XYZ, you often push back and advocate for the way you originally did it. I know this might be because you’re unclear about why what I’m asking for is preferable to the way you did it originally, and I’m glad to explain that when you’re curious — but the way you’ve been framing it has come across as almost argumentative. I don’t think you intend it that way, and in fact I used to approach things in a similar way until someone helped me see how it was coming across, and so I wanted to talk to you about it.”
Then stop and listen to what she says. She might be shocked that she’s coming across that way, in which case you could explain why and suggest some alternate ways of framing her response. Or she might think her responses have been justified and dispute that there’s anything wrong with it, in which case you’ll need to calmly and nicely help her see what the problem is. Or she might be quiet or a little upset, the way some people are when they get this kind of feedback, in which case you might assure her that she does great work overall (if indeed she does) and explain that this kind of feedback is how she’ll get ever better, and try to send her off feeling as good as you can.
Tone will matter here. You don’t want your tone to convey “I’m taking you to task for overstepping,” but rather “I think you’re great and I want to help you refine a work habit that you probably didn’t realize was a problem, and this is a normal thing lots of us have to learn.” (Mentioning your own experience with this can be a good way of reinforcing that; it’s going to help convey “this is a normal thing to have to learn; I’m not saying you’re horribly flawed.”)
After that, if it happens again, raise it in the moment when it’s happening. For example, if you ask her to do X rather than Y and she starts telling you why she did Y, say, “I’m not sure if you’re advocating for doing Y, or if you’re just helping me understand why you did Y in the first place.” If it’s the latter, say, “I don’t want you to feel like you have to explain yourself on things like that to me. As long as you understand to do X going forward, that’s really good enough.”
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