Every great leader tries to praise, nurture, and encourage, and most of the time that approach results in great employees.

Until it doesn't.

Here's another in my series of interviews where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. This time I talked to Henry Schuck, co-founder and CEO of DiscoverOrg, a company that maintains an up-to-the-minute database of contact information culled from the IT departments of corporations, educational institutions, and government organizations (and was #298 on the 2013 Inc. 5000.)

So tell me when using a little tough love is appropriate.

The perfect time to administer a little tough love is when someone diverges from an agreed-upon process--or process change--without approval.

That's when critical feedback is invaluable. Team members need to know that process agreements cannot be unilaterally changed without damaging the atmosphere of trust and cooperation... and negatively impacting results.

Give me an example.

Say one of your salespeople just had an unusually bad month. You sit down and look at the terrible month, and then all the great months before... and discover that he changed his process. He did great when he did his own outbound prospecting: finding leads, setting appointments, etc. During the bad month he relied solely on marketing leads that were sent to him.

So you both agree that going forward he will find and set two new appointments every day. Great.

Three weeks into the new month you check in and find out he hasn't done any outbound prospecting.

So you say, "Wait. We agreed to this process at the beginning of the month because it's clear your success is driven by your ability to find good leads on your own. So why didn't you?

Maybe he'll say he was distracted, or busy... and that's fine, but what's not fine is to unilaterally decide to do something different than what we agreed to.

But that happens all the time.

It does. Changing a behavior is hard. In order to make sure people follow through, you really do have to keep checking up... and keep reminding them why you put a process in place.

If we decide on a process, it's not okay to unilaterally bail. It is okay to come back and discuss your concerns--maybe then we'll adjust the process together. 

Even if it's totally justified, sometimes a little tough love doesn't go over so well.

Employees are much more willing to receive tough love if they know you're in the trenches with them. I regularly make sales calls, design marketing programs, test products, etc so our team knows I'm not some distant, disconnected monarch who doesn't understand their day-to-day challenges.

It also helps if you're willing to admit to your own mistakes and weaknesses. I can't tell you how many times I tell people much they are better at something than I am. If you hire someone who makes outbound sales calls all day you shouldn't be better than they are.

Always be willing to admit a weakness. That's a major benefit of a being a co-founder: I don't have any pride wrapped up in my title or role. I've gotten better at sales and marketing and product development because I've brought in subject matter experts.

When you're willing to admit your weaknesses it makes it much easier to talk to people about their weaknesses--because that way you're all in it together.

Still, I've known employees to immediately think they're about to lose their jobs when you give them critical feedback.

You have to make sure employees know being on the receiving end of tough love doesn't mean their job is in jeopardy. Constructive feedback isn't meant to instill fear and insecurity but is simply a tool to boost performance and foster excellence.

When you consistently tell people your goal is to help them improve, in time they'll start to trust you. I often say, "Look, I'm not trying to be a jerk. I just want you to be as successful as you possibly can be. You're doing well, but there's room for you--and for us--to grow." The vast majority of people are okay with that.

Unless you walk that talk, though, it can easily turn into management-speak... and then you lose people.

Whether you're using positive feedback, critical feedback, or something in between, if it doesn't result in behavioral change it's all just noise.

People get comfortable. We have a sign in our sales hallway that says, "If you feel comfortable on all your calls you're doing something wrong." You should always be pushing yourself out of the bounds of what you're used to because that's what forces you to get better.

It's much easier to be comfortable. You rationalize that what you're doing is most effective and then it's hard to change. Unless you're super disciplined about changing behaviors, they won't change. And then your employees--and your company--won't grow.

Check out other articles in this series: