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:
One of the people I manage gives me the silent treatment when I correct him on something or ask him to do something differently. I don't ever correct him in a mocking way or publicly. In the hours that follow the correction, he will avoid eye contact with me, position his body language away from me, and only speak to me if I'm asking him a question. He's usually over it by the next day and we go back to our usual friendly working arrangement/interaction, but during the hours that the silent treatment is happening, I feel emotionally drained.
The silent treatment makes me think twice about correcting him the next time something happens, which is dangerous because as we are involved in communications and mass media, quality control is very important. He's essentially training me on some level to not give him feedback. I don't need to be best friends with my subordinates, but as a caring human being, I do need to work with people who do not resent me.
You're absolutely right that when people act like this, it makes people hesitant to give them feedback. And that's bad for the person who is behaving this way, because it means that they might not get the input they need to do a better job. And then they risk being blindsided by it in a performance evaluation, or they wonder why they can't get raises or promotions, when their own behavior made people stop giving them feedback that could help with all of those things.
For all those reasons -- and, most importantly, because it's your job to ensure that work is being done well -- you need to be straightforward with him. Sit down with him and say something like this: "Bob, I've noticed that when I give you feedback on a project, you get quiet and avoid talking to me for the rest of the day. Because it seems to upset you, it makes it tougher for me to give you feedback, which I'm always going to need to do. Is there a different way you'd like me to handle these conversations?"
I like phrasing it as a question, because it gives him more of an opening to talk candidly than if you just chastised him and told him to stop.
It's possible that you'll hear something that you didn't realize -- for example, that he doesn't mind the feedback itself but he thinks your tone is unkind or that he's frustrated because your feedback contradicts earlier instructions he received. But if that's not the case, then this is the time to say -- nicely, but firmly -- that you're going to continue giving him feedback on his work, because that's your job, and that part of his job is having those conversations with you and handling them professionally.
Of course, this very conversation may make him get silent and upset, and if that's the case, you should address it head-on, right then in the moment: "What's happening right now is an example of what concerns me. I need to be able to give you feedback without you becoming upset. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't, and you'd be denying yourself the chance to get better at what you do. Can we work together on having these conversations go more easily?"
If the problem continues after this, then you need to talk to him again. This time, you'll need to make it clear that there are actually consequences attached here -- that being able to take criticism professionally is part of the role, and that it contributes to how his overall performance is evaluated and could impact future performance assessments, raises, and so forth.
If things don't change after that, then you'll need to decide how serious those consequences should be. If he's a fantastic performer overall, this may just be an annoyance you need to deal with, knowing that it will always be something that holds him back a bit. And if he's not fantastic, then you'll need to take on that larger issue; in that case, this would only be part of your problem.
Overall, though, resolve to be calm, straightforward, and assertive about what you expect from employees, while simultaneously being open to hearing what might be going on on their side of it.
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