Marsha Egan’s top tips to change the behavior, not the person

When I was a child, my father’s favorite line when disciplining me was ‘I’ll always love you, but sometimes I may not like what you do’. No matter how well a workplace operates, as long as people are in it there will be behavioral issues, concerns and idiosyncrasies which require careful management attention.

Many people try to handle these issues by ignoring them in the hope that they will go away. This is rarely successful. Many times, the unaddressed behavior can come back twice as severe, causing more trouble in the process. So, just as we correct our children when they behave inappropriately, we must address unwanted workplace behaviors otherwise the person will believe that what they have done is acceptable.

The preferred way to improve someone’s behavior is to give the person in question some specific behavioral feedback. This involves taking the person aside, explaining what behavior was observed and how it might benefit from some adjustment.

There is a huge difference between addressing the person and addressing the behavior. Saying “there were seven spelling and grammatical errors in your report” is a vastly different statement to “you are a bad speller.” One statement addresses the behavior, and the other is directed at the person.

If you stick to the specific observable behavior, people are more likely to do something about it. It is hard to argue with facts, it’s easier to understand what needs to change, and it reduces the risk of someone taking it personally.

Here are some examples of how to do it:

“I noticed you were at least 10 minutes late to work four times in the last two weeks.”

“For the last 3 weeks, the staff kitchen has been left untidy each time it was your turn on the roster.”

“I noticed that you interrupted the client 4 times during our luncheon.”

On the other hand, bringing up facets of an individual’s personality or using labels can create defensiveness or emotional responses.

Here are some ‘how not to do it’ examples:

“You have a negative attitude.”

“Your personal problems are seriously affecting the quality of your work.”

“You are loud and obnoxious.”

If you want to change someone’s behavior, it is more likely to stick if they understand the change and agree with it. After you have broached the subject, maintain a consistent and proactive approach to promoting the right behavior. If you believe that the individual can and will make the change, that expectation and belief will transfer to the subject. Show them your belief and allow it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When your approach feels more like coaching there is a greater chance that they will respond positively. To achieve this, it is vital to build rapport at the outset, which fosters trust and reduces tension. Being positive and friendly sets the tone for it to be reciprocated.

It is important to explain in a clear and unambiguous manner what behavior needs to be corrected and why, using specific examples, not generalized subjectivity. Describe not only what the misstep is, but how the correct handling of the task should look. This helps the person to see where they need to be.

Usually, the behavior is going to need fixing in some way. It is important that the person who created the problem is the person who does the fixing. This is important for two reasons: firstly, it prevents resentment for others who may otherwise be cleaning up the instigator’s mess and, more importantly, it is a good learning tool for the person who made the mistake. It is a good idea to work with the person to create clearly defined steps as to how this will be done, along with a timetable. It is even more important to reassure the person and confirm your belief that they can do it. This will give the improved behavior energy.

We are all human, and none of us are perfect. How you deal with these imperfections will have a direct impact on how the person buys into making the change, and ultimately your overall results. The most important thing to take away from all of this is that when you believe in people and give them the respect of an honest coaching discussion, they will do their best for you. And themselves.

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Marsha Egan, CPCU, PCC is CEO of The Egan Group, a Nantucket, Massachusetts-based workplace productivity coaching firm. She is author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence. She can be reached at, where you can also read her ... (Read More)

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