Praising good performance is easy because everyone likes to receive compliments. But what do you do when a kick in the butt is more appropriate than a pat on the back? Here's how to do this effectively:

1. Address the problematic behavior immediately.

Criticism is best given in real time or immediately after the fact. If you wait until problems fester, you only end up making those problems worse, because the other person becomes accustomed to the problematic behavior.

For example, suppose an employee shows up in an outfit that's inappropriate for your workplace. If you let the matter slide, there's a good chance the employee will dress similarly in the future and be all the more embarrassed when you finally object.

2. Focus on behavior not character.

Because your goal is to change a behavior, it's counterproductive to bring up and discuss the personality issues that you might believe lie behind the behavior. When you attempt to address personality issues, you're making a direct assault on the other person's self-image, thereby guaranteeing a defensive reaction. Example:

  • You: "You're unreliable! You've been late three times this week!"
  • Employee: "I'm not unreliable! That's not fair!"

Criticism of behavior is easier for people to accept and act on when it's accompanied by some praise. You do not do this to sugarcoat the criticism, but to recognize that the other person had good intentions, regardless of the behavior.

So start with some praise and then segue to the behavior you want changed using the conjunction and rather than the more commonly used conjunction but.

WRONG: "You're a big contributor to our success, but you're exploding in anger when people question your ideas."

RIGHT: "You're a big contributor to our success, and you're exploding in anger when people question your ideas."

Note that the use of but turns the praise into a backhanded insult while the use of and tends to reinforce the compliment.

3. Use questions not statements in the dialogue.

Now that you've surfaced the behavior you want changed, you want to get the employee involved in, and committed to, changing that behavior. That's possible only if you know the deeper roots of the behavior you want changed.

When you listen to somebody and acknowledge what they have to say, you learn about the world from that person's point of view, which helps you better analyze how to help an employee change their behavior. Example:

  • You: "You're usually a great employee and you've been late three times this week. What's up?"
  • Employee: "I'm having problems with my child care provider."
  • You: "You're obviously committed to being a good parent, and I need you here on time or everyone else's work falls behind. How can we address this problem?"

4. Get commitment on an action plan.

Resolve any differences between your perception of the situation and the employee's perception of the situation. Gain agreement on the area where there is a gap between the employee's performance and what's required.

Ideally the employee will come up with a plan to address the behavior. If not, or if the solution seems insufficient, provide your perspective on how to address the problem. Decide together what needs to be done to change the behavior. Example:

  • You: "You did a great job on that test program and I'm hearing that you've been expressing some anger in your emails to the programming staff. What's up?
  • Employee: "It really pisses me off when the programmers blame the errors on the test program rather than their own inability to write good code."
  • You: "I can tell you're passionate about eliminating the errors, and I think you'd get better cooperation if you dialed down your anger a bit. Any ideas?"
  • Employee: "Well, I suppose I could drink less coffee ..."
  • You: "Good idea. And maybe you could commit to waiting a day before sending any email that you write when you're angry. Can you do that?"
  • Employee: "Yeah, I guess so."
  • You: "Fantastic."

5. Consistently follow up.

It takes time for people to change their behavior because, well, old habits die hard. Unless the other person is very motivated to do something different, it's likely that he or she will slip back into the problematic behavior.

Continue to reinforce the new behaviors by monitoring performance and providing additional coaching as necessary. Coaches don't give up until the person they're coaching has achieved his or her potential.