how to manage an employee who’s argumentative when I correct her work

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 2 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 – if that makes sense. 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, by the way. 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.”

Good luck!

{ 147 comments… read them below }

  1. Ashley*

    Alison touched on this in her last paragraph, but I wanted to raise the point anyway. She may not be trying to be argumentative, but instead be trying to say “Oh, ok, I did Y because …” as in, “Here’s why I thought this was correct.” I do this sometimes, and I don’t think it’s been a problem for me, but I sometimes need to explain my thinking because there might be a flaw in my thought process somewhere in there that may cause me to do something similar in the future. So instead of just saying “I need to to do X” maybe help her understand why X is correct and Y is wrong.

    I don’t know if I’m explaining this well! Maybe she is definitely being argumentative, in which case this may not apply, but just something to think about.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Thanks, Ashley. I’m the OP and this has been a very serious part of my consideration as I tried to figure out how to talk with her about how she’s coming across to others, because I’ve had other people come and talk to me about this as well.

      1. fposte*

        I was thinking similarly about the explanation, though I might frame it differently than Ashley does–that it might be useful, if she thinks she’s explaining, to suggest that’s not a good time for an explanation because it does indeed come off as argumentative.

        1. Zed*

          OP, why can’t you just let her explain? Unless her tone is combative, of course – that’s a problem in and of itself. If you are responsible for training her, hearing her out might actually help you locate what areas she is having trouble with.

          One option would be to hear her out, give her some validation, and then correct her again. For example:

          You: I noticed you did Y instead of X in your report. In the future, please do X so it adheres to our company policy.
          Her: Well, I did Y because [explanation].
          You: I understand why Y seemed correct, but I just wanted to let you know that we will want to see X in the future. I can explain why if you’re confused.

          1. ExceptionToTheRule*

            That’s a perfectly valid question and my answer is that most of the time I do. I’m not particularly interested in being a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of supervisor and I’m readily willing to accept that other people’s methods of doing things can be just as valid as mine.

            With that caveat, we work in live television broadcasting and in the incident that led to my writing to Alison, she was pushing back on something during a live show. The timing was 100% inappropriate and what she was doing incorrectly had a negative impact on the broadcast.

            My desire to handle this sensitively and with understanding comes from the fact that there are appropriate times to get into the weeds on “why” and there are inappropriate times.

            Alison’s framing about not always needing an explanation gives me a great support to talk about the when it’s okay and when it’s not part.

            1. Zed*

              Thank you, OP! That does change things. So the issue is more of “this is not the time and place for explanations,” rather than that explanations and discussion are not welcome.

              In this case, I think it is 100% appropriate to explain to her that you don’t need an explanation during a live broadcast – instead, you need her to reposition camera two or mute the audio or otherwise correct whatever it is. Just as she (presumably) wouldn’t start telling you about her day while in the studio, she shouldn’t be giving you long explanations.

              You probably do this already, but it might be helpful to offer her the chance for a “postmortem” chat after the broadcast is over. That would give her a chance to explain herself or to seek clarification, and at the same time it would reinforce that talking about it during the broadcast is inappropriate.

              1. T*

                It may be that she is being argumentative but doesn’t realize it. I think I have that problem because I ask a lot of questions and have a difficult time following instructions without understanding the reasoning behind them and wondering if we are doing things the best way (because so many organizations “have always done it that way.”

                When I was younger and would say that something didn’t make sense, my dad would come back with “No, you just don’t understand it.” I agree with Zed’s suggestion of a debriefing after a broadcast (or whatever format works). I think it’s important to stress not only that there are certain times and places where her comments are innappropriate, but also what are the times, places, and methods for appropriately sharing her feedback.

                This may be mentioned below (I haven’t read all the comments, yet), but you might want to mention all this to her manager in case it becomes a bigger issue. And even if you have an informal discussion with the employee, make sure that you document what you and she discuss.

                1. Anonymous*

                  “It may be that she is being argumentative but doesn’t realize it. I think I have that problem because I ask a lot of questions and have a difficult time following instructions without understanding the reasoning behind them and wondering if we are doing things the best way (because so many organizations “have always done it that way.”

                  That describes me! It was a big problem with my mom, because she thought I was being argumentative, when the real problem was that it’s hard for me to accept “because I said so” logic, so I had to ask questions to understand her reasoning. It always made me feel bad about asking questions elsewhere in my life because I was afraid of being “argumentative.”

            2. Ashley*

              That makes sense! It sounds like the issue in this particular case is really about timing, so you could frame it as “When we are working with time constraints, like during a live broadcast, I need you to do X immediately. I’m happy to discuss why we do it that way when we have more time.”

              1. Anonsie*

                Agreed. I wouldn’t see it as pushback but just a really poorly timed conversation. She was probably oblivious to the timing issue at the moment, so just a simple explanation like Ashley has is a good idea.

              2. Ella*

                Quote: “When we are working with time constraints, like during a live broadcast, I need you to do X immediately. I’m happy to discuss why we do it that way when we have more time.”
                And if OP uses a firm but kind and sympathetic tone of voice the reaction of the young employee should reflect it, in theory. It needs two to *argue*.

            3. Cajun2core*

              To the OP: I am glad to see that you are not a my way or high-way type of supervisor, I have worked with so many of those over the years.

              In cases like the one you described above, maybe you can come up with some sort of mutually agreed upon word, phrase, signal, that indicates, “Just trust me for now and do as I say. We don’t have time for a discussion now but I will explain later.” Of course, be sure and to explain it to her later. The key is to be on the same page *before* a similar situation happens again.

              I am very much *not* a “Yes Man” so I can very much identify with your new employee. What I stated above is how I would want it handled if I were in your employee’s position.

            4. Bea W*

              Oh that does changes things some. You will have to clearly explain that to her. In many jobs, it wouldn’t matter if she wanted to explain, but a live production where things are happening *now* is not one of those times. If she is young and inexperienced, she may not recognize the difference. I can’t imagine entry level employees would have had a lot of live broadcast experience coming in and may have only worked in situations where the production was filmed and edited for show later.

              I wonder if this is part of the problem. I have no experience with this industry, but I imagine working with a film crew vs. working with a live broadcast are two different animals and she may not understand what those differences are and may be confused why you would don’t want her to do things the way she has previously learned to do them either at school or in non-live work.

            5. Cathi*

              I, like Ashley, and maybe your employee, am also an “explainer”. For me, it’s a defensiveness thing, because I don’t want someone thinking that I’m stupid for making a mistake. I work in the service industry where “explaining myself” to customers comes across as “arguing with” customers, which is bad bad bad.

              I still do it, sometimes, because of that innate fear that they will think I’m an idiot, when I’m not and there’s a simple explanation for blah blah blah.

              Since you/your team are generally going to be the same people Argumentative Employee works with, it might be helpful in the conversation to make it clear to her that you trust in her abilities. This might help dispel any sort of internal drive to prove she’s not stupid to you. She does good work, you trust her, etc… When you ask her to correct something, it’s not a referendum on her skills, it’s just something that needs to happen. That’s all.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In that case, you might frame it as: “I want to make sure you know that I’m not looking for an explanation of why you did Y; I just want to make sure you know to do X instead. Sometimes when you explain why you did Y, I’m not sure if you’re advocating for it or just explaining yourself. I used to do a lot the latter myself, until I realized that it was making people think I was arguing with them. I think you might be doing the same thing I was doing without realizing that it can come across to people like that.”

        1. Chriama*

          I really like this answer because I think this is the most likely answer. It’s not that she’s trying to justify that Y is correct, just show you that she’s not a total idiot who does stuff without thinking.

          1. AdminAnon*

            “It’s not that she’s trying to justify that Y is correct, just show you that she’s not a total idiot who does stuff without thinking.”

            +1! I used to do that same thing all the time until it was pointed out to me that it does come across as argumentative. For me, it was always more about explaining that I had actually thought it through. Even now, I sometimes catch myself starting to do it and have to stop mid-sentence.

            1. Sara M*

              +1. I’d bet money that this is what she’s doing. It’s extremely common to want to explain why you just did Y so the other person realizes you do have some thinking skills.

              Not always, but often, I have seen this come from people who grew up being questioned on everything by their parents (in a not-good way) and whose parents don’t respect their judgement. They develop this behavior because it’s a defense. If you can show Dad that you actually did have a really good reason, he’s less likely to yell you at you. So you get in the habit of offering explanations of things like this, because sometimes Dad will see your point. And then the behavior persists to authority figures even when you don’t realize you’re doing it.

            2. ano*

              I have a few friends who I have to get in the middle of and say “stop defending yourselves!” because they are doing this to each other and it *can* ramp into an argument.

          2. AAM fan!*

            To Chriama: That’s exactly what I was thinking!

            First and foremost, it’s of course important for OP to instruct the employee OP in what is correct for that organization and see that it’s done that way.

            That said… I think it might be of value for OP to (at least sometimes) to ask or allow for an explanation if offered. Surely it will give useful insights into their thought process. For example, even if the “Y” way is not correct in that case, learning that the employee’s former job made a point of never doing “X” for a significant reason (be it legal, or whatever)—hence, OP’s employee was attempting to be conscientious based on previous instruction. This way may indeed not work in this newer job, but it’s a world of difference in personal values to see a young employee striving to do right (but making a mistake) versus if her reasons were something flippant or careless. That, instead, would reveal some greater issues in terms of how this employee will function as a part of OP’s team.

          3. Kerry*

            It’s not that she’s trying to justify that Y is correct, just show you that she’s not a total idiot who does stuff without thinking.

            Totally agree! I used to do this all the time (I still do this all the time too, actually, which I’m now realising is a bad habit even if I always try to preface it with “Just to explain, I thought…”)

          4. Lanya*

            Exactly. I try to explain myself on a pretty regular basis, because I want my manager to understand my thought process or why something might not look good on a design. I didn’t think it was a problem, but I got ‘dinged’ on my annual review for coming off as being argumentative about design changes…which is not really my personality. But perception is everything. So now, if someone asks for something, I bite my tongue and make the change without explaining why I did what I did.

        2. Bea W*

          Yes, I like this much better. Some people are just trying to explain and don’t realize or mean to come across as being argumentative or difficult.

        3. tcookson*

          Usually when I explain my reasoning to my boss, it’s not out of defensiveness or to advocate for my way, but because I hope to compare our respective thought processes to see where my thinking wasn’t aligned with his so that I can come closer to the mark the next time.

          Of course, I agree that during a live broadcast is neither the time nor the place for any such discussion. It might be helpful to the employee to know that, while OP needs immediate compliance with instructions during a live broadcast (!), there will be a time later for discussion about it.

      3. VictoriaHR*

        Perhaps if you start pausing whenever she’s arguing too much. This is after you’ve followed Alison’s excellent advice and explained what you need from her.

        You: “So next time please do it XYZ way…”
        Her: “Actually I think I should blah blah blah”
        You: …
        You: …
        You: “So next time please do it XYZ way…”

        And if you keep doing that, she’ll take the hint?

        1. Sadsack*

          I don’t think that the employee is saying she thinks she should still do Y, but she explains why she did Y so the OP understands why she chose to do it

          1. fposte*

            Right, but she still needs to stop doing it. I don’t think that ignoring it will extinguish the behavior, but the motivation for the behavior doesn’t change the fact that it’s not serving her.

            1. Sadsack*

              I get that, I just didn’t know if VictoriaHR caught what was going on here, given the way she characterized her response. I agree the employee should stop this behavior. I only realize that I am also guilty of it thanks to this post! Must retrain brain…

        2. Bea W*

          I wouldn’t rely on people taking a hint. When they don’t get the hint, it’s just frustrating for everyone – her because she doesn’t understand what she keeps doing wrong, and you because she keeps doing it.

          1. Windchime*

            Yes, please don’t hint. I take a hint as just that….a hint. Not a directive or specific instructions, but a *hint* or a recommendation. I would rather have my supervisor be very clear and direct when he/she is telling me something, rather than offering up hints and hoping I draw the correct conclusion.

    2. Felicia*

      I do that too Ashley. I don’t want it to be argumentative and I hope it isn’t. It began a response to a manager who wasn’t very nice who would frame all of her feedback as if I had personally offended her or I was stupid. So it was more defensive “I actually thought Y through, I’m not stupid!” than an argumentative “no Y is actually better than X”.

      But then I also did it because I felt like if I explained why I did Y, they would better explain to me why I should do X in a way that I could remember in the future.

      1. Sadsack*

        I have done the same thing for the same reason. I want the person correcting me to know that it wasn’t a thoughtless mistake, I was thoughtful in why I chose to do Y, even if Y ended up being wrong. Maybe I should try to catch myself when I do this because I didn’t consider that my manager thinks I am being argumentative!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I was just thinking about this, and maybe we could say it like, “I understand. I thought Y would work because [insert VERY short point here], but now I see that X is a better way to do it. I will make a note to myself so when I get to that point, I’ll remember that Y is the way to go.”

          The “I understand” first is important, because it shows that you understand. And the point should be incredibly short–no need to explain the entire thought process. You think that would work? :\

        2. danr*

          Once is explanation. But if you keep doing the wrong thing and trying to explain why, it’s trending towards bullheadedness. And, yes, I’ve done that and had it pointed out to me by my boss. I stopped and listened the next time.

    3. Ruffingit*

      I totally get what you’re saying and I thought the same thing. I think whether this woman is being argumentative or just explaining would come down to her word choice and tone, but I totally got the “explaining vibe” from this letter myself.

    4. Laufey*

      I was guilty (heck, still am, sometimes) of this as well (offering explanation of why I took Y approach when given feedback). I blame it partly on imposter syndrome – trying to convince myself and everyone around me that hiring me wasn’t a mistake, that I was worthy of the job, etc. – and partly on a genuine desire to understand the differences between X and Y. Being aware that it was starting to come off defensive or argumentative, I started a new rule for myself – I would do it X way once without saying anything about Y. If I truly couldn’t see why it needed to be done X way, I’d go back later (i.e. no longer in the moment) and say something along the lines of “I’m confused why we do X. I thought Y was appropriate given A, B, and C. Can you explain why we do X?” This made it be more of a learning experience/growing moment and less of an arguing feedback moment.

      This process caused to notice two key things:
      1) A lot of the time (75% or more), X was genuinely better for a one or more reasons, and I was able to see this without wasting anyone’s time.
      2) No one cares. It was quite a shock to me when I realized that I didn’t have to be perfect – that I was expected to have a learning curve and I didn’t have to get things right on the first try. Most of the time, they themselves had made the same logical leaps to reach Y at some point in time. Once I stopped feeling like I had to justify everything, my relationship with my coworkers improved enormously.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Exactly. I think that for a lot of people being corrected is something they are uncomfortable with and need to work on accepting in a straightforward way. When you feel bad about making a mistake, it makes you feel better to try to make the other person understand what (to you, logical reasons) led you to make the mistake, so that he or she doesn’t think you are a complete moron, unattentive or illogical. I think that’s the reason for explaining – it is not that you are not taking the correction, but that you feel the urge to convey that you simply misunderstood something and were acting according to logic, not being careless or lazy.

        1. fposte*

          I think, though, it’s more similar to argument than we’re letting on here, in that it’s still a defensive maneuver. And that’s a response that can make it hard for people to supervise us because it complicates corrections and makes them into bigger things than they often need to be.

          That doesn’t mean it’s never appropriate to explain, but if I can’t sometimes take a correction without explaining why I did what I did, it’s going to hurt me, even if it’s not arguing.

          1. Ellie H.*

            And ironically – the people who are reflexive explainers are doing this exact thing by explaining why we explain! I totally agree that it is a defensive maneuver, that that is not a good thing and that it is necessary to be able to take corrections without explaining.
            I also really like the comments from Anonymous #13 and Wakeen’s Teapots Ltd. below.

          2. Frieda*

            I think there is a way to explain why you did Y instead of X without coming across as defensive, but instead as asking where your thinking went wrong so you won’t do it again in the future. You just have to make that explicit. So instead of “But I did Y because of A, B, C…”, it would be “Thanks for pointing that out. I thought that Y was the right thing to do because of A, B, C. Can you explain what I’m missing?” or something like that.

            I also think that it’s hard for process-minded people (like myself) to recognize that the reasons X is standard procedure might not be because it’s the best or most efficient method; it might be that we don’t have the time/resources to implement Y, or that Y requires help from Wakeen in IT and he doesn’t get along with our department head, or Accounting can’t import the file format from Y because their systems are 20 years old but the head of AP is retiring in 3 years and she doesn’t want to learn new software at this point so she won’t approve a project to upgrade. But it’s still a real problem preventing Y from happening; it’s just an office culture/politics problem rather than an problem with Y itself.

            In situations like that, I appreciate when the person explaining can admit the drawbacks of X and acknowledge the benefits of Y, yet still insist that we have to continue to do X for other reasons.

      2. llamathatducks*

        Thanks so much for this. This is something I do a lot for exactly those reasons, and your comment is really helpful in reframing these situations so that I don’t spend so much time overjustifying myself in the future.

    5. Dulcinea*

      I was about to post something similar. It could be that the employee is trying to understand WHY “y” is the wrong approach so she can avoid it in the future. Although clearly she isn’t conveying that well, I do think that it might be helpful to her to understand WHY “x” is correct. Understanding the reasoning behind policies and procedures can be really helpful in following them and applying them to other circumstances. So maybe OP could suggest to the employee better ways of getting an explanation.

      1. Zed*

        This is a thoughtful reply, Dulcinea. It is very possible that there is a silent “Why is this wrong?” at the end of this employee’s explanation of why she did what she did.

    6. Ann O'Nemity*

      Ashley, I do this too. (Especially for things more complex than simple mistakes like a typo.) But I’ve had a frank conversation with my manager about it, and stated that it really helps me to walk through the thought process so I can make better choices in the future. The interchange goes something like:

      Me: “I did X, because this we used that approach when a similar situation arose with ABC project.”
      Boss: “Ah, but the current project involves factors D and E, and we should instead use approach Y.”
      Me: “Okay. I understand that when I encounter D and E, I should use approach Y. I will do so in the future. Thank you for the feedback.”

      I think the important part is that last line, which shows that I understand and agree to take the appropriate action in the future.

    7. Anonsie*

      This, absolutely. This is how I respond to realizing I’m wrong, I explain why I did it so they can tell me where my mistake was in that thinking and explain it. It also helps clarify you’re talking about the same thing, because sometimes you’re not!

      I’d caution the LW to not think of this as being argumentative (“Y was right because I think it should be”) but seeking clarification (“I thought it would be Y for these reasons, why is it the other way? How off track am I overall?”) and respond in kind by explaining why Y doesn’t work or why X does.

    8. Hooptie*

      Yes Yes Yes – I always want to know WHY someone did something ‘wrong’ because it helps me to understand where our training or work instructions are deficient, or if the employee is a trailblazer and I need to go further and explain why this isn’t always a good thing.

    9. ella*

      I do this too, and I think it’s for roughly the same reason (and I’m trying to curtail it, and get better about just saying “Okay, thank you, good to know” when I get feedback). Sometimes I need to say my thought process out loud, and have it corrected, just to make sure I re-write my internal monologue about procedures correctly. It’s also sort of an indirect plea to not be thought of as an idiot who just pulls things out of the sky, but who came to a conclusion through a process of gathering information or making educated guesses.

  2. Bryan*

    I’m pretty new in my position (less than a year) and I realized I was doing something similar. When something was pointed out I would say, “Oh I did this because of this.” I wasn’t trying to be argumentative, I was just trying to explain my thought process on it (I guess so that my mistake would appear less wrong this way). I realized this sounded like a bunch of excuses and it would be better to just keep quiet.

    This might a possibility.

    1. Anonymous*

      Same here. It’s definitely not my intent to appear argumentative, but rather to show my thought process and maybe get some feedback as to why we should do x instead of y. For me, understanding the why helps me remember to do it in a way which wouldn’t be my first instinct.

    2. some1*

      Ditto. I’ve done exactly this, but usually frame it as, “I thought all headers on the TPS Reports were supposed to be Y”

    3. Joey*

      This depends on your manager. Personally, I welcome the rationale because I want to make sure the instructions were communicated clearly, there wasn’t some factor that came up that I wasn’t aware of, and/or to make sure the thought process is considering the right base factors. Although there are two keys:
      1. ownership of the error and acceptance of the right way.
      2. That we have time to discuss it.
      Otherwise it almost always comes across argumentative. But, I know managers that don’t welcome it unless it’s asked for.

      1. Marcy*

        I agree, as a manager I also want to hear the person’s thought process because it usually helps me pinpoint the disconnect. It also tells me that the person actually gave it some thought rather than just not caring. At least I know they are trying. I am also guilty of doing this and never realized that someone would think I am arguing with them. I’ll have to be more careful with my own boss.

        1. tcookson*

          This is what I’m looking for when I explain my thought process to my boss when he corrects me — for him to “pinpoint the disconnect” and then tell me where his thinking differs from mine. He’s never acted as if he thinks I’m being argumentative, and I’ve used the information to do it in the preferred way going forward.

  3. Zahra*

    I once had a teacher tell me that she will put more effort and time into a student (including giving feedback about what the student is doing wrong) when she feels the student has not reached their full potential. Otherwise, she won’t push as much. I try to remember that when I receive negative feedback at work: people are not correcting me because they don’t like me or think I’m doing everything wrong, they’re doing it because they believe in me.

    If they didn’t believe in me, I’d probably be on my way out (if they manage well).

  4. twig*

    I have done this too!

    It’s, in part, a defense mechanism — I don’t want to come across as a complete idiot, so I feel the need to explain why I did something a specific way and that I’m not a complete idiot. This is something that I’m still working on. When I catch myself explaining why I did something, I’ll acknowledge it (either out loud, if the situation warrants, or to myself) and move on to solving the problem, rather than hashing out how it happened.

    I think that if someone had talked this out with me when I was younger, it would have been a relief, in a way.

    1. Felicia*

      I can so relate! I think explanations as to why what i was doing was wrong and the new way was right would have helped me stop doing that. Its kind of like how “make it look good”, which was an instruction I would usually get wasn’t useful because it wasn’t specific, so I didn’t know what good was supposed to mean. If I knew why what I was doing was bad it would help me internalize how to not do the same in the future.

    2. rlm*

      I find myself doing this also! Especially when I *perceive* that the person telling me to do Y instead of X thinks I should have know to do Y all along. Maybe when you talk to her you can also get a sense from her if there might be a way you can give her ongoing feedback that will leave her feeling less defensive.

  5. Amy B.*

    Hopefully she is just trying to explain the reason behind her decisions.

    And then there are the people that just cannot be wrong. I had one on my team. No matter how or why I corrected her, she would get a terrible attitude. She had been transferred to my team because she had the same problem on her last one. Since I too was her supervisor, not her manager, and her manager almost NEVER gets rid of poisonous workers, I had her transferred to another team. To this day, she glares at me every time we meet in the hallway. I always smile and say, “Hey (firstname!)” It really ticks her off.

  6. Anonymous*

    This is an interesting question and good advice. OP, I hope you give us an update after you address this!

  7. Bea W*

    Is she genuinely pushing back or is it that she feels like she has to explain herself when someone points out a mistake? There’s a difference. Some people are just explainers and feel the need to explain why they made a mistake or did this or that even when they agree with the correction.

    If she’s explaining vs actually arguing with the OP about how to do it, that’s a different coversation that isn’t helped by accusing someone of pushing back and sticking to advocating their way after being told to correct a mistake. It’s not clear in the letter which it is.

  8. Molly*

    Here’s a twist on this situ – what should you do if your manager gives you feedback and she’s wrong? For example, if she asks you to give out inaccurate information. And what should you do if she does this regularly?

    I am in this situation and am in fact looking for another job because I feel so uncomfortable giving out inaccurate information. Should I argue my case each time or keep quiet? At the moment I give non-committal responses as I don’t plan to stay in the role.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I would pick my battles. If the current bad info is going to cause a lot of problems I would say “Are we sure we want to say X in light of A, B and C?”

      Since you are working on leaving I would just intervene only in the worst cases. Let the rest go.

      “Oh, so you want me to tell everyone X then right?”
      Where X is relatively benign, then just do it. “Boss says to do X.”

  9. Anonymous*

    I find this very interesting, especially seeing how many people have commented saying they do the same thing. I can see how it would come across as argumentative. I can also see how a situation like this wouldn’t be the best timing to bring up the reasons you did it in a different way … but at the same time, there is a big difference between a careless mistake, and a thoughtful one and I would think the employer would want to know that.

    What would be the best way (and time) to articulate that you were trying your best, did it X way because of Y, but appreciate the feedback and will do it Z way in the future?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d go with something like this: “Thanks for telling me — I’ll do it that way in the future. Just so you know where I was coming from, I was thinking XYZ. But you’ve cleared it up.”

      1. businesslady*

        I think that last part is key–without conveying “but I know the right way now & won’t repeat the error,” your explanation just…hangs out there, & there’s really no response other than “well, you thought wrong.” having that conversation over & over again makes things FEEL like an argument, even if they aren’t (& then if the employee has a problem conveying things in the right tone, it’s even worst).

        1. businesslady*

          *make that last word “worse,” obviously, ugh. (if only there were a thought process behind that mistake, which I could then explain!)

      2. fposte*

        I also think that it’s good to be aware if it’s a habit rather than a necessary clarification. If the response includes an explanation every single time, that’s a habit, and I suspect it’s that kind of thing that the OP’s employee is presenting.

        1. Jeanne*

          Exactly! My brother’s kids start almost every reply with “No.” And I can see that in the future they will have issues with employers about that. Their dad does…

      3. Anonymous*

        Okay, thanks for the advice. That’s generally how I handle it so hopefully it doesn’t come across as argumentative.

  10. Yup*

    It’s great that you’re looking to approach this in a positive, constructive way (instead of the way it was handled for you). In addition to all the advice above, one thing to consider is whether it’s appropriate to sometimes provide the explanation of why A is correct over B, to illuminate the underlying logic. I personally found it really helpful as a newbie when people pointed out the differences that were regulatory requirements vs client expectations vs boss’s preferences vs industry standard vs company policy vs workflow design. Not that you should have to explain every single thing of course, but perhaps occasionally explaining the “why” for big or frequent or highly visible things will help her understand that sometimes there really is one right way to do this task or why you’re so focused on a particular aspect of the work.

  11. Zelos*

    I’m guilty of this a lot…still am, although I’ve managed to curb some of it.

    As the guilty party, nowadays I respond something like this:

    Me: “Oh, I’m supposed to do X? But I thought with situation ABC under EGF circumstances, I should be doing Y?”

    Manager/supervisor/team lead: “No (optional: “No, because…”)

    Me: “Oh, nuts. I will correct from here on out.”

    I find that explaining myself “in a question” feels less argumentative than going “Oh, I did Y because of…” which feels like it’s making a statement. Framing it as a question (in tone and semantics) feels less like arguing and more like asking for clarification–even when I’m conveying the same information of why I did Y instead of X.

    Going back to it “after the moment” is kind of a toss-up depending on the manager: some will feel like it’s great and you’re thinking about it after the fact, some will take it as you take constructive feedback and criticism too personally. I find a light question in the moment and corrections moving forward to work better.

    But yes, count me in amongst the bandwagon of people who do this!

  12. the_scientist*

    I agree with other commentors here that it might not be argumentative, it may just be the employee’s attempt to explain her thought process. I’m also young-ish and in a first career-track position out of grad school, and I see shades of myself in this question. In my case, since I work in research, explaining your thought process is par for the course, but I could see, for a new employee, how frustrating being told “we actually don’t care, we just need you to do X” would be. In my case, I usually say “sorry about that, going forward I’ll make sure to do X” and then follow up with questions about why X is the most appropriate way to go. An explanation of why X is best helps me to understand the logic, which is really, really important to me. It also helps me be a better employee, I think, because once I understand the rationale, I can make suggestions to improve the process once I have proved that I understand it.

  13. Del*

    If she really is just doing it because she’s trying to explain her reasoning or dig into where she went wrong, one thing you can suggest to her (and what I learned to do; I’m someone who always wants to know where the wrong logical step was) is this-

    First and foremost, thoroughly acknowledge that she’s been corrected. Make it 100% clear that she understands her call was incorrect. Then get into “Well I did this because…”

    So a potential script to offer her in situations like this would be something like, “Okay, I understand. When we’re pouring the chocolate teapots into the mold, the spout should always be facing toward the left. Got it! I’ll make sure I do that in the future. Just out of curiosity, the lid maker seems like it’s set up for them to face either direction – am I reading that wrong?”

    One of the big problems with what you described is that even with the best tone and most humble attitude, it makes it hard to tell whether the person receiving correction actually understands that they are being corrected and that they need to do things a certain way.

  14. Ann Furthermore*

    Another approach would be to ask her why she did Y, and give her a chance to explain herself. Not in a, “What were you thinking, you nitwit?!” kind of way, but in a way that allows her to explain her train of thought or rationale for doing Y when she should have done X.

    After she’s explained, then presumably you can say, “OK, I can understand why you did Y, but X is how you need to handle it going forward,” and then explain the reasoning. This would perhaps give you a glimpse into how she makes decisions, if she’s applying her job knowledge, and so on.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      You know what else just came to me? If she’s new, it could also show you if someone else is nudging her the wrong way, or if there is a process that is set up wrong. I have run across the latter before. I was supposed to do something one way, but the instructions were not caught up to the actual tools I was using. Once we figured that out, I was able to do it the way it was supposed to be done.

      1. ellex42*

        “If she’s new, it could also show you if someone else is nudging her the wrong way”

        We had this kind of problem at my workplace with “Mike”, a coworker who argued about EVERYTHING. He would go around to everyone at least once a week and tell them that we should do something a different way. At first, some of us would explain to him why we didn’t do it that way, but he would argue about it. As the office manager (too small an office for HR), everyone came to me to complain about “Mike” interrupting their work, so I had everyone tell him the same thing every time: “Go talk to the boss about it. If and when she gives the go-ahead, I’ll start doing it your way, but not before then.” Unfortunately, it didn’t make any difference – he’d keep on arguing about it with us, and he’d do his own work the way he wanted to, without ever going to the boss to talk to her about it. Worse yet, every time we brought someone new in, I’d have to tell them not to listen to “Mike’s” instructions.

        Eventually, I had to go to our boss and explain what was happening and how much disruption “Mike” was causing. She told him flat-out to come directly to her with his “suggestions” and stop bothering the rest of us. When he kept pestering everyone and started arguing with her about his ideas as well, he was promptly let go.

  15. Katie*

    I do the same thing when I’m corrected by my husband, and it usually starts an argument; reading this thread has been an “ah ha!” kind of moment, an epiphany – complete with angel choir :) I would give an explanation, and then be mad when he said I was arguing with him. Now I see what’s happening!

    1. bobby*

      Same here! But I also think I got into this habit because my husband needs to learn to correct people (especially me!) more tactfully.

  16. anonymous*

    If you just want the employee to do what you say without comment or question, hire a very low level employee.

    1. John*

      Um, I don’t get this. There are places where one offers counsel. There are places where you are supposed to execute according to how it’s done.

      Knowing the difference is a basic competency.

            1. fposte*

              But that’s the situation the OP is talking about. She *does* need somebody to do things without question or comment during a live broadcast, whether they’re low-level or high-level.

      1. Tinker*

        Early in my career, I knew a guy who was a senior-level aerospace engineer. He’d been hired by the company as an engineer and assigned to a manager whose department… well, was a place where you are supposed to execute precisely what you are told.

        He gave his word to stay at the company for a year, and he spent precisely one year doing things on the order of “Take truck #5 and a shovel, go to this place where I have put a stake, and dig a hole two feet deep. Put the dirt on the north side of the hole.”

        I’m pretty sure at the end of that year he knew the difference. It’s unfortunate, though, that the company failed in that basic competency when they hired a senior engineer to dig holes.

    2. Marcy*

      That doesn’t help. I have a very low level employee and although he doesn’t comment or question, he doesn’t do what I say either. And he especially doesn’t tell me when he messes something up. He leaves it for me to discover on my own, sometimes months later and then pretends he doesn’t know what I’m talking about because it was so long ago.

  17. JMR*

    Something about you describing yourself as the “good cop” rubs me the wrong way. Are you trying to say you don’t want to be thought of as the “bad cop,” so you aren’t willing to correct her? Are you in a position of authority over her or not? You say you are responsible for supervising and training her. So train her. Exert your authority by telling her what she is doing wrong and how she should be doing it right. And make it clear you won’t tolerate her making excuses as to why she did something the wrong way. You can do that in a nice way, or you can be blunt about it if she is just arguing out of sheer pigheadedness.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Having been in similar positions- yeah it is a good cop role. Because OP has no real authority over the employee. At least not the level of authority that a boss would have.

      I did not read an attitude into the statement. There are advantages to this secondary role because OP can say things like “I am just an employee here, too, and this is what the bosses expect from me.” She can point out “when the big boss sees X happening he will speak up about it and here is why.”
      OP will be able to say some things by pointing out “here is what is expected from BOTH of us.” This does help with the sting factor from what is being said.
      She can use this once in a while which will help the employee to feel less singled out and probably less defensive.

  18. AdAgencyChick*

    OP’s update makes it clear that there’s a time issue — there is a time and place for explanations, but during the middle of a live broadcast is not the right time.

    That being the case, that’s exactly what I’d tell her — “after the telecast is over and we’re conducting a postmortem, please feel free to explain why you did what you did, and I’ll react to it then. [Because that would be a good time for OP to explain why X needs to be done the way it’s done, or if the employee does have a nugget of truth that OP considers for future reference, she can acknowledge that too.] But during a live broadcast, when I give you instructions, I need to have them executed immediately, without comment, because of the time-sensitive nature of the work.”

    1. Chelsea B.*

      I definitely agreed with AdAgencyChick. Given the nature of the work, this particular time is not the right time to have the full blown conversation about why. The “why” can be important, but the “when” is also clearly an issue in this post.

  19. Whippers*

    In my first office job I definitely tended to be a bit like this; trying to explain why I had done things a certain way and justify myself. However, my “feeback” was given in a rather negative way.

    I used to help customers fill in forms for claiming different benefits and this would then be sent to a higher staff grade to be processed. I used to constantly get the forms sent back with little notes on it about the most minor errors which did make me feel defensive and as though these tiny errors were negating the good job I was doing. As a result I would often ring the higher grade staff to try to tell them why I had made the error, or to suggest that the error was so minor that it didn’t really need to be sent back.

    My real mistake was in thinking that they really cared about why I had made the error; they just wanted their forms filled in a certain way and that was that. But I think it was the passive-aggressive little notes that annoyed me the most; if they had picked up the phone to tell me the error it probably would have gone down a lot easier.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      To me a live conversation is so much more helpful. I have had people say “Yeah, this sounds picky but make sure you are doing it this way not that way.”
      Notes, are just like email in that the tone can get lost and the writer fails to address the overall context. For me the mere nod, “yeah this sounds picky” informs and validates all the same stroke

      1. Frieda*

        Eh, I have to push back on this a little. Sometimes when you are the person receiving ALL of the data everyone else has input, each “little mistake” adds up to a huge amount of work.

        I used to run monthly reports on milestone progress for all of our hundreds of projects. I’d pull a report from our database, clean up the data, and feed it into a report for my director that broke down things like percentage late/on time, the numbers and types of projects each manager had, etc. It took a minimum of a day to get the data from the format it was output from the database into the format I needed to create the report, and speed was important because the data is pegged to the date I pulled it–the longer it takes to put the report together, the older the data is.

        And the single biggest thing that took up my time? Fixing all of those “little mistakes.” Yes, it does matter if you enter the name in lowercase rather than all caps. Yes, it does matter if you filled in the “revised” date but not the “completed” one. Because this information isn’t meant to be human-readable; it is meant to be machine readable. And each of those errors makes my report off by 1, and every inaccuracy in the report makes it less compelling evidence. “Your report said that we’re 10% behind on project completion, but my assistant told me we finished project X last week and your numbers are off. And if they are off by this I can’t believe any of them, so won’t listen to you at all.”

        So, every month, I would flag every error in the report and send it around to all of the assistants, in a group email, telling them that they needed to correct their data ASAP. Yes, I could have manually gone in and corrected everything myself. But then the same errors would have cropped up every month, and I’d have to fix them all every month. But if I publicly showed everyone their errors and made them take the time to go back and fix it, over time there were fewer and fewer errors and I could get the reports done faster and more accurately. I could have probably handled it a different way if I were the boss, but these weren’t my direct reports. And if you think it is annoying to have someone bounce a form back to you over a “little mistake,” imagine how annoying it is for that person to have to miss their deadlines because they are fixing ALL of the little mistakes, when it wouldn’t have taken you any extra time to do it correctly the first time.

  20. Viv*

    This is something I was guilty of, too, and I am not new to my career. It’s not that I was taking an adversarial position, just that I often think I’ve discovered an easier/better way.

    I found there are two ways to handle this. Part 1 was that sometimes the request from my manager was unclear and I was assuming too much. I now repeat back the assignment, and get confirmation for part of the process up front. So, “You want me to use the ABC query on the database, export it to Excel, and then use compare the data using this, this, and this? ”

    Also, if I’ve genuinely found a better way to do it, month end is not the time to share my wonderful discovery. I now pick another time to bring up the alternate method. That way it comes across as less adversarial or defensive.

  21. Jill*

    This may sound harsh, but if this girl is younger, maybe she’s not looking to explain herself. She could just be a byproduct of the generation that was raised with the constant “You’re special” philosophy where she spent her childhood never being criticized and always being praised so maybe she just doesn’t know how to react to anything less than that. (No excuse though!)

    I’m 36 and my age group was socialized with the whole “Challenge Authority” philosophy so it took me a long time to get over wanting supervisors to justify WHY they wanted me to do something differently.

      1. BCW*

        It never goes anywhere good because its a conversation that very few people can have without someone getting offended. But the truth is, there are certain patterns and ideals that different generations grew up with, and to ignore that isn’t always the best thing either. How my mom was raised vs. how I was raised vs. how the kids I taught were raised is very different, and you have to expect that those differences will be evident when they enter the workforce. The problem though is everyone thinks the generation after them is bad somehow instead of acknowledging that there are some benefits as well.

        1. Cat*

          But there’s huge variation in how any given individual within a generation was raised. There’s no point in taking an individual with no other context and just assuming something based on their age. You’ll be wrong more than you’re right.

          1. BCW*

            I don’t know if I’d say that. Of course there are differences, but if we want to look at how different cultures are and take those differences into account in the workplace, how are generational differences something we shouldn’t look at.

            1. Cat*

              If you dismissively said, as Jill did, that a worker of X culture probably just thought that were Y negative thing because of their culture, then no, that would also not be okay.

          2. Felicia*

            +1. And the whole “kids these days are so much worse than kids in my day.” has been going on for hundreds of years. I was not socialized with the “you’re so special and let’s never criticize you” mentality everyone says my generation was socialized with, because this was not the norm in this particular part of this particular city, and I’m sure my generation was not raised as a monolith. I find any generalizations about a generation are generally exaggerated to paint whatever generation the current teens/young adults belong to as the worst one ever.

            1. Del*

              Absolutely. I was raised with enormous pressure to succeed, and anything less than a perfect grade was unacceptable. This was common for most of my classmates as well — and yes, we did compare notes on that. There was no excuse to not excel.

              Whenever someone talks about how all Millennials were raised with a “participation award” mentality, I just roll my eyes and remind myself of the frequent “Oh, you got a 98? What did you do wrong?” discussions.

    1. Tinker*

      I’m 33, and I can recall reading these sorts of assertions about the cohort entering adulthood since I could read material aimed at a general audience (which was pretty young). This included stuff that was written substantially before I read it.

      Given that the older tail of that group (say, people who were turning 18 in 1980) would now be getting into their 50s, I don’t think we can really say “the generation”, singular, and “younger people” anymore.

      (I also tend to not care for generational comparisons at all, and particularly the sort, i.e. most of them, that seem to hold up grinding negativity as some sort of ideal to which we should aspire.)

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I am fifty something and I did the same thing.

      My rationale was at home and all through school I had to explain every.single. thing.

      I think it is a false attribution to say “it’s unique to a particular generation”. Because that assumes there is ONE mechanism driving the behavior.

      I can picture any new person of any age, being eager and drinking too much coffee, responding in this manner.

      Little kids always ask why-why-why. Some where along the lines they learn that really annoys others. But as we go on through different life experiences our inquisitiveness is still in place. However we may show it in all the wrong ways. OP’s employee maybe brimming with excitement and trying to learn everything in one week or one month. She maybe trying to connect the dots in her head and forming conclusions too quickly. Or she just could be very hungry to learn more and more and OP is not moving fast enough to show her. This might be resolved by OP saying “this is the area we work in- we do A, B and C. We do not get involved in process D and E. Those areas are covered by Sandy and Joe’s work.” This would help the new employee to settle into learning the routines for the aspects her job does cover.

      I still what to know why bosses decide things the way they do. I just like learning this stuff and I like see how people think.

  22. Marina*

    Ugh, this is something I’ve working on as well (to the point where I’m reeeally hoping OP isn’t my supervisor…). I’ve found myself in “arguments” with supervisors lately because with any new instruction my brain immediately jumps to figuring out what situations it wouldn’t work in. I’m beginning to realize it’s not at all a helpful tendency as a first response, although it can be useful as a private tool to think things through on my own before I bring it up with a supervisor. I like Laufey’s suggestion above of just saying okay as a first response, and then if something about it really isn’t working then bringing it up again later.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Really good advice. I have done this, too. And yeah, it does impress the bosses when you just stand there and say “okay.”

  23. BCW*

    I think this often when this happens its really not knowing how you come across. I’ve had this problem, and depending on who you ask, may still have it. For me, if you say “BCW, you did X when you should have done Y”, often I’ll say oh, followed by an explanation of why I did it or why I thought it was correct. Some people see explanations as being equal to excuses or arguments. If you are a manager who sees things that way, then you would probably think I can’t take feedback well, etc. Whereas for me, it really is just giving you an idea of what my thought process was. When I do have managers who are understanding of that they will say “Oh, now I see why you did that, and I can see how you would be confused by it. Going forward, if you have questions or need further clarification, feel free to ask.”

    Its like when I was teaching math. If I said “Billy, you did this problem wrong” and he says “Sorry, it was my understanding that to solve this problem you had to do this”. Well, that explanation will help me work with him going further. However, some people could see that as arguing on how to do it.

  24. anonymous*

    There can be a generational aspect to this. Personally I find the thoughts of employees with regards to decisions and instructions is often valuable.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think any generation disagrees with that. Rather, it’s a matter of helping the employee understand how to present her input in a way that doesn’t come across as argumentative or resisting her manager’s feedback.

      1. anonymous*

        Younger generations may be more comfortable with volunteering their ideas in response to what their superior says.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          At least in my experience, I haven’t seen that type of generational pattern. (And I think there’s a risk of ill-advised bias against multiple generations if you go down that path!)

        2. ella*

          It’s not a generational thing, it’s a class/culture thing. Kids who are raised in middle or upper middle class homes are taught from an early age to interact with a variety of authority figures as equals (for example, when I was little, both my mom and my pediatrician expected me to answer basic questions about how I was feeling or what I needed. There was a very early understanding that my doctor was MY doctor). They’re talked to more at home and their input is sought. In lower income homes, the kids often spend more time on their own or only in the company of other kids (riding bikes unsupervised around the neighborhood, for example), and their parents are less likely to be practiced at navigating bureaucracy, and more likely to react to authority figures as authority figures, not as partners or resources.

          (I’m referencing a study by Annette Lareau, she wrote a book published ten years ago or so)

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            Thank you for pointing this out.

            I get so tired of this generational debate that is going on now. SO much of it is about class and otherwise intelligent people are somehow blind to how classist these generalizations are.

            I usually just skip these conversations entirely lest the top of my head blows off but I am glad to have read your post.

            Tail End Baby Boomer Raised Lower Middle Class

            1. ella*

              You’re welcome :)

              If my sociology coursework has been good for anything, it’s internet discussions.

  25. Anonymous #13*

    I completely disagree with a large majority of the comments here. Is her tone combative, or defensive, event a LITTLE? If so, please do us all a favor and coach her through this behavior.

    We have a person like this at my company with a similar background. When a situation comes up where her supervisor says, “in the future please do X”, her response is NOT “Oh, I did Y because ____. In the future I’ll do X”. Instead it is a “I’m doing Y because ______.” With raised eyebrows and annoyed tone. Even when direct conversations have been had, she still responds with an “I’m right because _______.” So far no one has been able to get through to her. She will now be traded to a new team for the third time in a year because managers cannot be firm with her. I’m not sure why she acts this way. It may be because she works in a support role but she feels she is better than that. It may be because part of the rest of her dept’s job is to dictate how things will be for the rest of the company and she feels like she’s able to do that, too. Or it may be because she was given free reign/little to no guidance under previous supervisors.

    At my first job, we often worked on tight deadlines. If I did something wrong my boss would say, “You’ve done that wrong, do it X way” and when I would say, “Oh, I thought I was supposed to do Y because…?” he would cut me off and say, “I don’t have time to explain it right now. Do it X way, and I’ll explain at some point in the future”. Even if he never did get around to explaining, over time I would eventually figure out on my own why sometimes it’s X, sometimes it’s Y, and sometimes it’s Z, and why it’s not up for discussion. I find that most young employees don’t want to spend any time listening/quiet learning. And if you DO explain it turns into a “isn’t it more efficient if we…” or a “but what about this totally unlikely scenario?”. Just listen, take direction, and if it’s not clear after a while have a one-on-one meeting to clarify- but don’t try to do this when time is of essence.

    At any rate, if I was the girl in my office’s supervisor, I would have some sort of discussion about who’s the boss here. In fact, on most of the projects I’ve been on with this girl, I’ve always had to establish in meeting #1 who is the decision maker and ultimate authority on the project, which seems to help. For now, I can only hope that someone decides to mentor her.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Hey #13, you’re describing two very different things here.

      You’re experience was sub-par in my not so humble opinion. :) A good manager teaches people how to make good decisions, not just to follow rules. You figured out how to make good decisions on your own, eventually, but more back and forth would have gotten you there faster and a lesser person would have failed.

      The employee you describe isn’t being argumentative, she’s refusing to follow instruction and I would deal with her on that basis.

    2. Natalie*

      “I completely disagree with a large majority of the comments here. Is her tone combative, or defensive, event a LITTLE? If so, please do us all a favor and coach her through this behavior.”

      I’m not seeing anyone suggest the OP shouldn’t be coaching her employee through this. There’s a lot of people offering perspective on exactly what the issue might be, but notice that most of them are also offering suggestions for how to raise it with the employee if it is indeed a problem of trying to explain, rather than argue.

  26. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    I almost always give a brief reason when correcting an action, probably because I like to hear a reason myself and also because it precludes debate unless 1) there’s something I’m wrong about or 2) the person is just argumentative.

    So, “You’ve used the wrong ship method. Use UPS Standard when shipping teapots to Canada.” becomes…

    “Hey listen, this shipment was sent UPS Worldwide to Canada. We always use UPS Standard because it is much, much less expensive and just a few more delivery days. Please remember to use UPS Standard.”

    Maybe I didn’t have all the info and the person says “yes, I know that and I usually do. This was a special shipment for the King of Teapots and he paid the full shipping cost for the faster service.”

    I get to say “Oh, good job! You’re ahead of me!” and not be the idiot boss who corrected something that didn’t need correcting.

    Failing that scenario, the person will usually say something to the affect they didn’t realize or it was a one off mistake, terribly sorry.

    It nearly always effective to include a brief why, although not necessarily possible during the OP’s live broadcast. (I’m picturing the scene in Broadcast News where they are running with the tapes — was that Geena Davis or Holly Hunter that jumped the hurdles to get them on air? Anyway!)

    I’ve done a pretty good job of training people who are otherwise defensive when things are pointed out to expect to either learn something from a correction or have an opportunity to correct me if I’m wrong, because I do listen. (when we aren’t live on air or in the middle of defusing a time bomb or something)

    1. Liz*

      Best response yet.

      Honestly, the OP left out a key aspect of this scenario that completely changes the question. Outside of that incredibly specific during-a-live-broadcast context, a good manager should be welcoming (indeed, seeking) explanations for the errors made by people they manage. You will learn all sorts of things: gaps in your own instructions, broad misconceptions someone may hold which affect multiple tasks, preferences and values that can give you a good indication of how they will behave in various situations, and – as the above commenter alludes to – totally new information that you might never have known about had you not listened to the person’s explanation.

      I was once approached by my manager asking about why I had initiated a process that seemed to go against one of our company’s finance policies. I explained that I did know the policy, but had been specifically instructed by one of our finance managers to take the action I did. This ended up uncovering some widespread regulatory noncompliance throughout the company that was putting us at great risk. When would that have been discovered if I had been trained to simply shut up and “accept feedback”?

      For once, I disagree with AAM’s advice on this one. I don’t think a meta-confrontation specifically about this person’s habit of explaining is really necessary or helpful. If she’s offering an explanation for something she did, the simplest reason for that is that she wants you to know why she did that thing. I think there’s more to be gained for both of you by trying, within these actual conversations about her errors, to a) really hear and acknowledge what she’s saying to you, AND b) really confirm that she does understand what she should have done and will do in the future.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        I was chuckling last night when I realized that I think I have learned this management method from my kids. My 22 year old is autism/aspergers and my younger is some kind of genius mad scientist in training. Quite cooperative even as toddlers as long as a brief, logical explanation was included in whatever instruction, so I think it is just the way that I *talk* now.

        Anyway, I don’t have much patience for employees who argue for the sake of it, but I also don’t run into it much. It is probably true that, due to my kids, verbal styles that bother other people don’t even register with me.

  27. WRM*

    I do this and I know why I do it. I do not want my boss to think I am stupid. I will tell her why I did it that way because I do not want her to think I am stupid. When I got older I decided to listen only because I know that is all they want is an ok and nothing more

  28. Labratnomore*

    I’m a little late to the party, but I just had a thought about this. I have seen people tend to be more argumentative, or try to explain themselves more when they don’t fully understand why they should do something in a certain way. I try to ensure I explain why they should perform a task in a certain way when I tell them to change how they are doing something. I find this especially helpful with people who have less experience in the task I am trying to explain. Since there are variations to every situation I also think that really helps them think through similar, but not exactly the same situations in the future and perform the task as it should be done.

  29. mel*

    Hmm…. Maybe everyone I know just happens to be insensitive or self-serving, but I feel like if someone was doing that in such an important and inopportune time, that worker wouldn’t even be able to get three words in before a quick “It’s not important WHY you were doing Y, it’s important that you start doing Z instead because Y isn’t working.”

    Wasn’t the supervisor nice and reasonable enough when he/she brought it up?

    1. Anonymous #13*

      Yes, I guess this is what I mean in my comment above. There are times when a nice little 5 minute conversation about why things should be X way simply can’t happen. Sometimes, it needs to be “Don’t do X. Do Y instead.” – such as during a live broadcast. I find this to be perfectly acceptable.

  30. Bonnie*

    I’m late to this but I did want to point out one other thing that I didn’t see mentioned in the comments above. Many people above talk about explaining their reasoning and I agree that is the issue most of the time. But I have found very often, especially in very new employees, they can’t hear your correction unless they get a chance to explain. For some people the need to explain is so great that once you mention the need for a correction all they can think about is explaining what they did. Sometimes they can even stop listening until they can say their piece. Most people eventually stop on their own as they gain more confidence in the position.

  31. Jamie*

    I missed this yesterday – such a great question because I think we’ve all either been this person or worked for or with someone like this.

    I personally don’t mind an explanation if it’s quick after agreement to correct.

    For instance if I ask someone to do X instead of Y. “Sure – I was doing Y because (short comment) but I’ll do X going forward” is fine with me in most instances, because it’s a heads up that they were wrong and not sloppy and I get needed to explain a little bit.

    On the other hand if I ask someone to do X instead of Y “I was doing Y because …” is bad because it feels like an argument.

    My door is always open for suggestions to do something more efficiently or to explain procedures and policies if someone wants a more global understanding of why they are instructed to do things a certain way. I have a fondness for people who are interested in their tasks beyond “click here, type this.” And if you can suggest a way to streamline a process without compromising the intent of the policy I’m all ears. I am all about opportunities for improvement.

    One thing I do always want to know if I ask someone to stop doing Y and that’s if someone specifically trained them to do that. As an auditor and manager if other people are also doing it improperly I want to address that.

  32. Mialou*

    I supervised a new and very young employee several years ago. She started with us in college as an intern and we hired her right after graduation. She was personable, smart and fit in. Her problem was that she knew she was smart and felt she had to prove it again and again. She interrupted meetings, did things her own way, etc. I finally addressed it with her and it was hard because I knew how much she valued her contribution. I told her that she didn’t have to keep proving that she was the smartest person in the class anymore and that, by voicing her opinions all the time or doing things differently than expected was not showing initiative but really showing that she didn’t have listening skills or paid attention to details. I suggested that in meetings she make it a point NOT to speak unless asked (or I would mention that she was working on something so that she could talk about it), or when being given instructions, she would basically repeat back the instructions to whoever was giving them to show that she was actually listening. Like if she was asked to call Jim about when the teapot photos would be ready she would say, ok I’ll find out from Jim when the teapot photos will be available. Not oh, I’ll just walk over to see if they are ready now, wasting time and energy.

    I know it sounds simplistic and almost ridiculous but this was her first professional job and she didn’t really know how to function in one. And how do you ask? I have had some awful bosses and didn’t want to be like them. I really didn’t want to have her remember her first job experience as a bad one but one where there was someone who was helpful to her rather than nasty.

  33. GBGBGB*

    I’m a day or 3 late in contributing to this discussion, but, with the framing of time being of the essence and ‘this can be explained later’, there is the managerial division of tasks as part of a work around. (which isn’t to say that dealing w/ argumentative tone isn’t important, but, to head it off when there isn’t time).

    I work doing ‘special events’ at work and the days before them are often crazy–and sometimes involve me handing stacks of *stuff* to my employees and telling them some convoluted way I want that stuff organized–and since in 2 hours, 1,000 irritable people are going to be showing up wanting their stuff, I may not have time to explain that they’re putting it in first name alphabetical order instead of last name because there’s a federal privacy law we’re trying not to run into.

    The employees are told during training there are 2 types of directions I will give them. There’s the “Bill from the Family Circus” directions–where I give them a starting point and an ending point but I don’t care how they get there. And there are “Lockstep” directions where I need them to do EXACTLY what I told them, even though it may seem like the long way (and that discussions about improving this could happen later).

    My employees tend to ask “is this Lockstep?” when they want to tweak the processes–and it usually isn’t.
    Seems to work for us.

  34. Anonymous*

    Nooo, I think it’s wrong to expect an employee to just shut up and accept feedback. If it’s the wrong time to discuss it, just let her know and says “Let’s talk about this later. We need to X right now….” But some managers have a problem listening.

    1) I do this often because I want to know what the reasoning is behind X method of doing things. That’s how I remember.

    2) My supervisor also frequently tells me to do something a certain way. Then 6 months later, I’ll notice that he’s doing it differently, and if I ask about it, he’ll swear “we’ve always done it this way.” He’s also VERY cranky, so bringing it up in itself will seem offensive to him. And yes, I’ve gone back and made sure that I’m not “misremembering.”

    3) I can’t always trust him. He’s often told me not to do something that we’ve been told to do by someone higher up. Then if we’re asked about it, he’ll point at me and say he didn’t know it was happening. I’ve learned how to deal with it ethically since then, but now I’m really afraid to trust him.

    So don’t always blame the employee! Have a little respect even if someone IS argumentative. Maybe if you try to listen with an open mind, you’ll find out why they seem that way.

  35. Anonymous*

    (re/ my last comment: I’m commenting on the early discussion, not on situations where you obviously can’t discuss it right away.)

  36. Anonymous*

    I had to have this talk with an employee just yesterday, and it did not go well. I was addressing the fact that she has been argumentative on a few occasions when I gave her an assignment, arguing that either she shouldn’t have to do the assignment (no experience, too busy) or that she had already done her part so she shouldn’t be asked to do any more to help her team. Unfortunately, during our meeting all she did was argue with me about how I had misinterpreted everything she was saying. She was so defensive. I had to repeatedly explain that she didn’t need to argue. If she had done the work, all she needed to say was, “No problem, I will go and review my work and ensure that it is done,” rather than arguing to the entire team about how she had already done her part. About 24 hours after our meeting, she quit. She felt I had been unfair and dismissive in our conversation. I have mixed feelings, because although she was one of my better employees, she had become very difficult. I think younger, less experienced employees need to understand that they can’t just quit when the boss gives them negative feedback. And she never did understand why her behavior was a problem in the first place.

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