when I give my staff feedback, they complain that I didn’t tell them earlier — but I’m telling them pretty fast

A reader writes:

I’m looking for some help with replying to a specific line of conversation.

I’m at the middle management level in a medium-sized company. For the most part, things have been going smoothly. I do a lot of one-on-one coaching, and it usually goes without incident. I have a private, casual chat once something minor has happened two or three times–just enough for me to know it’s not a one-off, but not so frequently it’s habit yet.

However, more and more, when I try to give feedback, a couple specific people reply with, “You never told me! Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”

…This IS me telling them! Literally the entire point of the conversation is to tell them the feedback and help them resolve whatever the challenge is. If I actually corrected every minor mistake the very first time it happened, morale would plummet and they would hate their jobs. Nobody wants that!

There’s no reason for people to fear my feedback. We don’t even have formal performance reviews (that’s another story), we don’t “discipline” people who mess up, and I typically don’t even care the mistake happened beyond my professional responsibility for quality control. I’ve tried different formats for the feedback, like email, instant messenger, and in person, but it hasn’t change the response.

I don’t know where these defensive replies are coming from, or why they are trying to turn the conversation around on me. It’s emotionally exhausting though, and I don’t want my team members freaking out every time I tell them something minor they need to improve upon. I need to be able to give feedback without the drama. Please help!

Yeah, that’s odd. In many cases, it’s better management to wait to make sure that something isn’t just a one-off before correcting someone — because otherwise, as you point out, you’d be coming down on people too often and when it wasn’t needed. Good managers do assume that people are human and won’t perform at 100% every moment of the day, and it often does make sense to wait and see if correction is really needed.

Is there something else going on that could explain the reaction you’re getting? It doesn’t sound like they have reason to fear severe consequences if they mess things up (which would have been my first guess), but is there a pattern of them not having heard feedback promptly in the past (maybe from a previous manager if you haven’t been in the role very long)? Were there serious business consequences from the mistake, which would make it the sort of thing you should touch base on right away rather than waiting to see if it’s repeated? Are the mistakes the type where getting it wrong once indicates that the person has a misunderstanding of a policy or procedure that will almost certainly be repeated if it’s not corrected now? Are the people giving you this feedback the overly-conscientious type who freak out if they’re perceived to have done something less than perfectly?

If you can’t figure out where it’s coming from, I’d just ask people directly. The next time it happens, say something like this: “Often, minor bumps get fixed on their own or never recur, and I trust and respect you enough that I want to give you some leeway to figure things out on your own and not feel jumped on every time something minor happens. If I notice it a few times, that’s where I’d think that I see it differently than you do and that it’s worth us talking and getting aligned, which is what I’m doing now. Does that make sense to you? If not, tell me more about where you’re coming from with this.”

And then hear the person out. Maybe you’ll hear something that does shift your perspective. But if not, then it’s okay to say something like, “I hear what you’re saying and I appreciate you raising it with me. I’m going to keep in mind in the future that you prefer feedback as early as possible, but I’m also going to balance that with my judgment about whether something is minor and unlikely to become a pattern or a problem, and the independence that I want you to have.”

One other thing — if this is only happening with a couple of people and not with anyone else, it might just be a quirk of those two people. It’s always good to step back and ask yourself whether you have a role in what’s happening and to try to learn more about what’s going on, but sometimes it comes down to individual quirks. When that’s the case, it can make sense to just explain where you’re coming from, acknowledge the difference in style, do what you can to accommodate it (if you can do so in a reasonable way), and not worry too much about it beyond that.

I hesitated to write that last bit because too often managers ignore feedback that they should be paying attention to and I don’t want to encourage that … but as long as you’re receptive to feedback and consider it with an open mind, you don’t always have to agree with it in the end.

{ 183 comments… read them below }

  1. Charlie*

    How long after the infraction are you giving feedback, OP? I just wonder if you’re letting a week or two go by, and they’re out of shape because of that.

    1. SophieChotek*

      Interesting point. Like perhaps the employee receiving feedback is afraid the OP has been stewing about it.
      Otherwise, though, based on what the OP has written, it seems like the OP has a pretty balanced approach to giving feedback, especially in an environment without performance reviews/disciplinary action.

    2. OP*

      It ranges from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the seniority of the person. New staff have their work reviewed frequently, whereas senior staff have work reviewed in spotchecks only. I’m the only one who does QC for a 10 person team, plus I have a ton of other tasks, so it’s impossible for me to check their work daily or even weekly.

      The people who are getting defensive are more senior. Even if I find the time to move up the frequency of their checks, I don’t see that going over well because they will assume I am doubting their abilities.

      1. Biff*

        A few weeks is way too long. Especially if you aren’t giving them a blow-by-blow of the event. I had a boss who gave feedback long after I’d forgotten the original event. “Do you remember how you spoke to Susan last week at lunch?” Nope. “Well, you shouldn’t speak to her about parenting like that.” Did we even talk about parenting? “Susan was uncomfortable.” Did she say why? “Well, I’m just passing this along to you.” Okay, but what should I do? “Well, understand that you can’t just say things.” What did I say. “I don’t exactly know.” So on and so forth…

        The problem was that I got vague info, enough after the fact that I didn’t recall the incident, that I couldn’t turn into action items. My response was to not talk to Susan for a long while.

        If my boss had said “I overheard your conversation with Susan at lunch the other week, and I felt your comment about attachment-style parenting came across as agggressive and unnecessarily combative. You need to cool it at lunch and not get so worked up.” That would actionable, I would understand what happened, and I would have information I needed long before Susan and I came up against another conversation that was of deep import to us at work.

        1. doreen*

          I think whether a few weeks is too long depends on the details. Sure, even a week is too long to wait to talk about how one person spoke to another at lunch. But that’s not every situation – I had to speak to someone today about issues in her work going back for a few months. It’s not that I delayed the feedback- I only discovered the issues yesterday when I reviewed all of her cases. Which I can’t do every week with the 900 cases assigned to the people I supervise. I review them when something brings them to my attention- maybe I need to approve something, or someone makes a complaint. Or when I decide to review the whole caseload (as I did yesterday) because the same issue came up in a couple of cases submitted for my approval.

        2. fposte*

          This is for writing, though. I think it’s perfectly legit to say “Hey, you’ve had three misplaced modifiers this month; can you watch those?”

        3. Mari*

          This reminds me of a time as an undergrad when I was one of four student supervisors for our campus’s writing center. We ran semester long group tutorials (three students, and one tutor) and our boss always said if we overhear a tutor going complete rogue against our policies and how we run the groups, to chat with them right after the session, so that the moment is fresh. The way we ran the sessions were very different from tutoring at other campuses so it was expected that new tutors may struggle to adapt to our way of doing things so there were things that we expected them to struggle with, but sometimes, someone will completely ditch how we train them to run the session, either consciously or unconsciously.

          Our boss taught us to initiate the chat by just asking “tell me a bit about that session” and this normally gives them leeway to explain why something went haywire and it gives us a chance to get more context. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake and the tutors realized what they did wrong and we can help them figure out what they could do next time something similar happens, or sometimes the session just got hijacked by an aggressive student and the tutor didn’t feel comfortable confronting that.

          If however, the tutor doesn’t show any awareness for having done anything wrong, or just how the session was not in alignment with what a session should’ve been like, we then proceed to say “Well, I wanted to talk to you about what happened when X happened. I noticed you began doing Y instead of Z, why did you do that instead?” This is another chance for them to explain their reasoning but its also paired with us explaining why doing Z is the better, and preferred, option/choice and how X actually is counterproductive. Sometimes resistance occurs, but then it’s just a matter of explaining why we run the sessions the way we do and how our way specifically addresses and helps the students more effectively.

          These chats typically ranged from 5-10 minutes at their workspace. The key was to address these very big errors when the moment was still fresh in the tutor’s, and our, mind while smaller errors, or errors that we predicted would happen due to past experience training tutors, or patterns of errors we notice that were popping up among all tutors, were addressed in our weekly meetings, where the more experienced tutors would be paired with less experienced tutors and provide feedback/responses, or we would do it in groups. Sometimes it’s not even ‘errors’ but just people unsure of what to do or how to handle certain things.

          I don’t understand where the snap or defensiveness is coming from, especially since they are more senior as well. I feel like I would feel relieved at receiving an answer/guidance to something I was struggling with. Maybe they feel embarrassed? Or like you’re calling them out, even when they are more experienced than the newbies? I know sometimes I can feel like I’m being picked on if it’s a one-on-one setting but that tends to apply more if it happens frequently, which doesn’t seem to be the case here. Either that or maybe they feel like it’s such a minor thing that an email would’ve sufficed instead of an in face conversation?

  2. Cake Wad*

    Could it be that this “private, casual chat” actually feels more like a “formal reprimand in the boss’s office,” so they’re wondering why something less formal didn’t happen first? Maybe your staff aren’t feeling that the meeting is as casual as you think it is.

    1. AMG*

      I thought of that and/or you could be a bit brusque with your feedback. If they are interpreting your giving it a quick mention a being curt or short with them, maybe that’s where this is coming from.

    2. Grits McGee*

      OP did mention that she’s had the same results when she’s tried IM and email. If OP’s using the same wording across platforms, maybe the issue is with the message and not the medium?

      1. Grey*

        I was just about to mention this. If it’s more than one person, on more than one platform, OP should maybe take a look at how she’s wording the original feedback.

        1. OP*

          Right, that’s why I’m hoping for help with the messaging! At best, problem solved. At worst, I can cross wording and tone off the list…

    3. Manders*

      That was my first thought too. If my boss had me come into her office for a private meeting to tell me she’d noticed a pattern of mistakes, I would assume I had really screwed up.

      Also, the lack of formal performance reviews and discipline might be part of the problem: because there’s no formal process in place to deal with serious performance issues, employees might not be able to tell the difference between a casual correction and a warning. Sometimes a total lack of structure makes people feel less, not more, secure.

        1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

          Same here – it’s really tough to gauge which managers are merely bringing things to your attention, and which are actively reproving you when there’s no formalized process for addressing major issues. I still have minor moments of panic when my manager contacts via IM with “Can we chat?” and most of the time I know I haven’t made any mistakes.

      1. Anon for this*

        Yeah, the informal process would leave me unsure of where I stood. When I had a manager who worked this way, I was never sure of whether I was meeting her expectations.

      2. OP*

        I 100% agree but the formal reviews are out of my control. No reviews is a mandate that comes from the top down.

      3. doreen*

        I totally agree about the lack of structure causing people to feel less secure. But I wonder how you would like your boss to tell you she’s noticed a pattern of mistakes – you might assume you screwed up if she brought you to her office, but I know a lot of people who would be outraged if the boss told them this at their cubicle where others could overhear or over the phone and even more who would assume it was something serious if the message came via email ( because then she must be documenting it). I’m not so sure there’s a one size fits all answer to preventing people from thinking it’s more serious than it really is.

      4. SarcasticFringehead*

        Adding to the issues around lack of structure (many of which are likely or definitely outside OP’s control), this may be the employees’ way of saying “we don’t feel we’ve been given adequate training” or “we don’t feel comfortable reaching out for help when we need it.” They may be focusing on the reprimands because they haven’t thought through or aren’t comfortable bringing up structural issues. (I remember times, especially as a younger employee, when “why didn’t you tell me sooner!” really meant “I’m underconfident and don’t feel adequately trained,” but I didn’t realize the actual problem at the time.

    4. DA*

      Yes, that was exactly my thought.

      Also some people just don’t take feedback well, so framing it in another way “you’re doing great work, but” or “here’s something new that I’d like you to try” can soften the blow even if from your perspective it already feels soft.

      1. Bellatrix*

        On the other hand, softening the blow is a common management mistake, think something like: “This isn’t a big deal, I think you’re awesome, but there’s this teeny tiny thing”. The problem with this is that you’re not communicating the importance to your employee and they’ll treat it as low priority: and then be even more blindsided when the issue is escalated (as it needs to be, because at that point they’re repeating a mistake addressed in the past).

        I’m not saying there isn’t a way to soften the blow while still drawing clear lines, just to be careful.

    5. Diplodocus*

      Yeah. This struck me as potentially a “tone” issue. Tone is hard. It’s difficult to communicate in an effective register / style when a workplace is full of people with a diversity of communication styles and different ways of experiencing the world inside their brains. It’s an art and a skill. Many, many people are bad at this: in person, and notoriously so over email or IM. Even those who take pride in approaching interactions sensitively (and have some intuitive skill with tone) know that’s it’s possible to miss the mark.

      If one is speaking to unique folks that are already predisposed towards sensitivity to criticism, or defensiveness, or humans that are (by nature or experience,) hypersensitive or hyper-aware to tone–then even the smallest correction in a poorly perceived tone can lead to panic-worry-irritation-anger-anxiety and all around Bad Stomach Feelings of Dread.

      1. Middle Age White Dude*

        I wonder about the gender and age of the manager v. the gender and age of the recipients.

        My younger female friends, particularly those who are either very attractive or are POCs, get a lot of criticism for saying exactly the same thing as I do.

        If there’s no gender/age issue, then instituting a review with a paper trail is the best thing. If it’s objective, uniform, and consistent, then a lot of the issues should disappear. Provided, however, that OP is not working with a bunch of whiny jerks.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Keep in mind “You never told me!” could be a defense mechanism, especially if it’s only 1-2 people. Although your workplace sounds pretty chill, you never know what background people came from. I can easily see this being a parenting trait.

    My former boss also had this nasty habit. I took it personally for awhile until I realized she was paranoid about not knowing something that everyone else did. She’d always ask me how long I’d known something before I told her. My answers ranged from eight seconds to 20 minutes, but she’d still make that same complaint.

    1. AMG*

      True. We all know from reading AAM that there are some really dysfunctional, abusive places. Who knows what kind of environment they were at in their last roles.

      1. fposte*

        I also think it’s a pretty common response, period. I’ve seen people posting the “they should have told me before they told me” sentiment here a few times, and I think sometimes it’s just how people process an “Ouch, I didn’t enjoy hearing that.”

        1. LBK*

          I think there’s a difference between “you should have told me 5 minutes after it happened instead of a day” vs “you should have told me the first time it happened instead of the third”. The first one I agree sounds more like an instinctive reaction to receiving feedback you weren’t prepared for, but I think the latter is more genuine concern about not receiving feedback that could actually have actually had a bigger impact if it had been delivered sooner (at least that’s what I would mean if I said it).

          1. fposte*

            Some of this depends on the error, but with a lot of errors it’s not a good use of time to bring it up the first time it occurs, so the response to that statement from me might be “I get that, but this is a pretty common time frame for me to be providing corrections.”

            1. Anna*

              Exactly this. I tend to approach it as first time is an anomaly, second time could be a coincidence, but if it’s happened three times it’s a pattern.

              1. Desert Dweller*

                Some people do use this as a defense mechanism for everything – specifically my husband. That’s one of the things he did learn to recognize (mostly) but it took counseling. It’s the first thing I thought of when I read the letter because it was such an issue with us.

                1. TootsNYC*

                  That reminds me–my husband does this too. If there’s a schedule change, he gets upset that he’s “only hearing this now.” Even though, well, nothing changes on his end. Or it’s still weeks away. Or if I told him 30 minutes after I found out.

                  I’ve had to really push back on that w/ him. It’s not as bad as it was, but it still pops up.

                  He just doesn’t like the cognitive “agitation” that results from him having to learn something new about the schedule.

                2. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*


                  Does my husband have another wife? I wouldn’t mind, really I wouldn’t.

                  Exactly the same with him and it baffles the shit out of me.

                3. fposte*

                  And apparently I am married to both of you. How lucky I am!

                  Okay, I don’t actually say, “Why am I just hearing about this now?” but TootsNYC called it–I don’t like the cognitive agitation. When I first hear about something in this category, my knee-jerk thought is “OMG all the things that have to happen as a result of this!” This is true even if “all those things” are “buying the same groceries but on Thursday.” It really takes a minute for me to figure out it’s not a big deal.

                4. Paula*

                  This was my thought when I read the letter – it is a defensive reaction. My husband does the same thing when he hears something he doesn’t like or wasn’t expecting. Example conversation: Me: “I heard from my father that he thinks he may eventually need our help with nursing home charges.” Him: “Why didn’t you discuss this with me??” Me: “That is exactly what I am doing, right now.”
                  It is a way of blaming the messenger.

                5. Mookie*

                  Same here. “How dare you tell me something I desperately don’t want to hear, know about, or deal with. This is all your fault!” Runs in the family. Tiny repairs necessitating a service call from a plumber or somesuch threw us into a collective whirlpool of ugh-new-unfamiliar-thing-disrupting-my-ass-scratching-plans-unnerves-me.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I have found that I needed to specifically state, “Yes, I know some things when through to completion with this error. But we won’t worry about that because we only decided now that it is a problem. So we will let those go but from today forward we will do x instead of y.”

            People need to know that the boss realizes some errors went through already. They need to know that there is no worry about those errors and just do it correctly going forward.

            See, people feel that they have been entrapped, “You knew this was an error. YOU LET me send it through. NOW you are telling me it is a problem? I can’t fix something I no longer have.”

            There are bosses who do expect people to fix something they no longer have.

        2. Lana Kane*

          I had a coworker like this once – the OP’s post made me think of her immediately. And in her case, I think it was definitely just a gut reaction to being corrected. She also seemed to think that any correction = trouble. Our manager was not punitive, and gave feedback relatively quickly and reasonably, so I think it was definitely a personality thing.

          Our manager never fully tackled the reaction, I think she just got used to it! But I often wondered why she didn’t just say, “Hey, this *is* me telling you. You’re not in trouble, let’s talk about how I view feedback, maybe it’s not coming across as I intend it.” Or something to that effect.

          1. paul*

            It took me probably 2-3 years in a professional job before I really got that at a gut level too so I can sympathize. But it is something people need to at least try to realize; correction is part of a managers job if they notice you messing up.

            Also, I’m glad I’m not a maanger.

          2. Whats In A Name*

            I like that wording specificially: You’re not in trouble, let’s talk about how I view feedback, maybe it’s not coming across as I intend it.

            1. ExceptionToTheRule*

              If I need to talk to someone in my office, one-on-one, I always preface it with “you’re not in trouble” as appropriate. I know who our last few bosses were & how they made people paranoid. 5 years into it and it’s still a recovering issue.

          3. AMPG*

            This was the one thing I thought was missing from AAM’s response – if it’s just a quirk specific to a couple of people, it’s reasonable to do some coaching around receiving feedback in a constructive way.

        3. Elsajeni*

          Yeah, I think often it’s just a response to the embarrassment and anxiety of screwing up at work: I feel bad right now -> Boss must have done something wrong in this conversation to make me feel this bad -> There’s not an obviously wrong thing like yelling at me or calling me stupid to seize onto, so probably it was the timing, or the tone, or whatever. Kind of the same way that, in break-ups, people sometimes fixate on the exact wording or tone or timing and insist that, if you’d just broken the news to them differently, they wouldn’t be so upset.

    2. Brigitha*

      I came here to basically say this. I used to use this myself as a defense mechanism in order to deflect criticism. For me, it was a hangover from design school where we were trained that we needed to have a darn good reason for doing every little part of a process. We were required to defend our decisions in a public critique where instructors and peers would challenge everything about a project. It was terrible training for how to operate in a professional capacity and took more than one person pointing it out to me before I realized what I was doing.

    3. Former Invoice Girl*

      Oof, yes. Both me and my boyfriend are like this to different degrees. I personally always feel like the person telling me about the specific thing has been stewing about it for weeks or months and is holding it against me when s/he they finally dares to bring it up (which might be projection since I’m someone who hesitates a lot before saying anything about most things, but gets resentful after a while. An ugly trait – I’m working on it!).

  4. Cambridge Comma*

    There are a couple of very different scenarios that I imagined while reading the letter, so it is possibly quite field-dependent.
    If they are minor errors in a process, I wonder if the staff members might be getting the impression that you have a specific idea of how a process is to be carried out but don’t share it with them until they’ve done it wrong. Perhaps they want more up-front guidance.
    If you have been standing there watching them make a mistake and haven’t said anything, letting a product go out with a minor problem, as a staff member I might also wonder why you didn’t say in a neutral tone in the moment ‘I’m sure you would have caught this, but watch out for the upside down spout on that blue teapot’. Then I can either say that I missed it, or say ‘Wait a minute, you mean the spouts on that line don’t pour upwards’.
    If it’s behaviour, such as being late or not cleaning the kitchen when it’s your turn, waiting to see a pattern seems completely reasonable, so they are probably just trying to deflect the responsibility back to you.

    1. Future Analyst*

      That’s a good point: maybe they feel as though the OP is “withholding” info by not (casually) addressing it in the moment. That being said, the “it’s not fair!” vibe from the individuals receiving feedback makes me think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to feeling embarrassed.

  5. OhNo*

    OP, is there any chance that you’re only seeing these things happen two or three times, but they could be making the same error many times? If you only check something once a week, but they do it every day, they might be viewing it as a bigger issue than you are (as in: you see it as two errors, they see it as twenty).

    That’s the only reason I could see for responding that way if it was me, personally. But I’m definitely a self-critical perfectionist, so your employees may be different.

    1. DCompliance*

      This. It is possible the OP only recently picked up on something, but maybe they have been doing that way for years.

      1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        Exactly my thought. I’d definitely react, well not defensive, but I’m pretty sure somewhere along the line of “why did you let me do it wrong all this time”.

    2. LBK*

      Oh yeah. I’ve definitely had somebody tell me that something was wrong on the latest version of whatever I sent out, only to go back and realize that I’ve actually been doing it that way for a year and either no one noticed or no one told me. If you’re waiting until it’s happened 2-3 times, that’s just the 2-3 times you’ve caught it – they might realize once you call it out that they’ve actually done it that way a lot more times than that.

      1. Emi.*

        Yeah, and realizing that you’ve been doing it wrong that long is really embarrassing and worrying–has someone else started doing it wrong too because of my example? did my mistake influence an important decision? did it make us look bad? Of course getting defensive is the wrong response to that, but it’s understandable.

        1. A Beth*

          We’ve faced this in my role (20+ of us in the division) several times over the past few years. We all share notes and call each other to confirm we’re doing things right, and to suddenly hear from the director that we’ve been doing it wrong is pretty frustrating. I ended up second-guessing a lot of my work for a while because we already knew all the communications weren’t flowing down to us, and to be called out on something–even very professionally and graciously–was pretty tough.

      2. K-VonSchmidt*

        Just happened to me today. AP person tells me they’ve been working around my process all this time, say 15 years! WHAAAT?!?!

      3. Stranger than fiction*

        That literally just happened to me about a week ago. I gave a chart to the leadership team and about five minutes later, my boss asked me to take a look at the figure for a specific salesperson. Low and behold their number was incorrect and had been all year! Clearly nobody had been looking at it monthly but they were looking at the year end version to do some planning. Oops!

        1. LBK*

          Ha, yeah, that’s also the depressing part about it – glad I spend time doing this report every month that apparently no one is bothering to look at.

    3. Manders*

      Good point! That could be what’s going on, especially since it sounds like OP is reviewing a random sample of their work instead of going over every single thing.

    4. Middle Age White Dude*

      Also, I want to know if the people are all making different errors of if they are all making the same errors.

      As I see it, here are the potential situations:

      (1) Everyone is making the same errors repeatedly. ==> Fix the process or clarify it.
      (2) Everyone is making errors frequently, but the errors are unique to each person. ==> Address individually based upon the type of error and the personality of the employee. Some issues can be handled with a quick conversation, some may require something in writing.
      (3) It’s not about the errors, it’s about the process of performance evaluation. If it’s been haphazard and only verbal, there’s the issue.
      (4) It’s not about any of the above, but in how OP is delivering the message or how recipients are receiving it. Change the method of delivery (e.g., from verbal to written, from individual to group).

      One thing I have found that worked in process related errors was to send out a weekly/monthly email to all my direct reports that stated “here’s the issues that have arisen this past week/month” and “here’s how this should have been done (with specific steps listed)” and “here’s why this is important” and “here’s what will happen if it continues.”

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Ha, regarding that last part, sometimes I send similar emails to the dept here, and I always, always, get a couple individuals who reply only to me “omg who did that?!”.

      2. TootsNYC*

        regarding your memo:

        I tried to do something similar by putting together a folder w/ mistakes or good catches. And I have to make a major effort to re-lecture everybody on this point: I don’t care who missed it the first 3 times; I only care that it was caught the last time, and that it’s a good training example.

        I’ve had to say to people, “You are forbidden to say, “Oh, I didn’t see that story, so I’m not the one who missed it. You’re forbidden to look to see who worked on it. You’re forbidden to TALK about whether you missed it or not.”

      3. Cafe au Lait*

        (5) Manager has evolved or adapted a new pathway of the process but it wasn’t communicated to staff.

        When I first started my job, I was a stickler for documenting the processes. It really came in handy when my boss told me I was doing something wrong, so when I went to my ‘processes binder’ I discovered I had been told correctly, she had changed how it should be handled.

        The change wasn’t really a big deal. Being told I was in the wrong was annoying. Especially since my work place tends to be reactionary–someone somewhere doesn’t like how we process something and the entire system is changed.

        OP, if you haven’t considered thoroughly documenting your processes, you might want to do that this year. It might be that your staff understands a change happened in Section 7, Category A, Subcategory 16b, line 87, immediately followed by the semi-colon. Whereas Subcategory 16 was rewritten.

    5. OP*

      Yeah, I have been mulling this over too. It’s possible the people are worried because they have made the mistake many more times than I have noticed.

      1. Zombii*

        That’s quality control. It’s very rare that you get a chance to check everything (and if you are expected to check everything, that seems unrealistic based on the number of people you’re apparently overseeing). All you can do is the best you can do. :)

  6. ElleKat*

    Working in an organization that has serious communication issues, many of us here have been on the receiving end of this kind of feedback – often after years of doing it the “wrong” way.. The industry is heavy on compliance issues.. hence the our complaints about wishing that one had been told sooner.
    Also, I’m senior in the department and mentor and train others as well as take pride in doing things the correct way – so it’s frustrating to find out that I’ve been doing it wrong all along….

  7. pomme de terre*

    If there are no formal reviews, two things might be the issue:

    1. They have no idea that there is a difference between a “hey do X different” conversation and a “you’re really underperforming and are on the path to being fired” conversation.

    2. If you only talk to them about mistakes (however valid), they only feedback they’re getting is negative. Make sure you mix it up with good stuff that lets them know they’re on the right path.

    1. Jaguar*

      Yeah, those were some of my thoughts.

      OP doesn’t mention whether she’s giving holistic feedback or just covering the mistakes. I tend not to have problems keeping my work and my abilities in perspective, but even I’ve been in places where the feedback is only “here’s what could have been improved upon / what mistakes were made” and it can be difficult to tell whether I’m screwing up everything or if my manager is just trying to tune up some stuff. It’s also worth mentioning that if you are only hearing it from a couple people, that doesn’t mean only they are having those concern. And even if you are giving good feedback, if it’s out of proportion or doesn’t accurately convey your overall thoughts on their work, you can still wind up with this same problem.

      That said, it’s also important to know that complaints like this can be for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s people angling to avoid criticism. Sometimes it’s people having a hard time hearing criticism. Sometimes it’s a weird powerplay. Sometimes it’s something else altogether and they’re taking it out on you through this avenue.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Re: #1 — that can happen even with formal review processes in place. Reviews happen just once a year; conversations that could be interpreted either as “Hey, I’d rather you handle that differently” or “If you don’t change this you will be fired” can happen at any time.

      That happened to me, in my last gig. I’m generally a top performer, got the highest review ratings, etc. But I transitioned to a new role internally and was struggling. When I had my first review in the new job, I learned that my new boss had serious concerns about my performance. We had weekly meetings, but I experienced the feedback she gave me during those as “Hey, have you considered this different approach?” conversations, whereas she meant them as “The way you’re handling this is problematic, and it’s causing me to reassess whether you’re a good fit for this role.”

      So: In my case, the opposite problem as what might be happening here. But just wanted to say that the formal review process didn’t prevent that misunderstanding (at least, not for the several months before I had the review).

      1. pomme de terre*

        Reviews are definitely not a solution to everything! At my last job I had a really similar experience to yours — I was struggling (and working with a first-time manager), and was taken aback at my formal review (with a department head sitting in) when it was pretty negative. I got the bad feedback, which was tough, and made adjustments and eventually prospered. My manager later said that she was surprised that I was surprised, because she thought she’d been giving me lots of feedback and I should have known I was not on the right path. I was hearing, “Hey, you used X instead of Y. Have you thought about Y or even Z?” and she was trying to say, “Do not use X under any circumstances. Z is our top preference, and Y is OK in emergencies. But never X.”

    3. Middle Age White Dude*

      With respect to point 1, you could always send an email to everyone who does X and clarify that “there have been some issues with X” so I’m explaining to all of you how to do X properly.

    4. TootsNYC*

      and by “mix it up,” don’t make it a compliment sandwich. Just point out to them now and then that they did something particularly well.

      I did it today–one of my folks put the “s” on the word “bicep,” and I commented to him that he seems to be the one who catches that, and he should put it on the list of stuff he does well. If I ever have to say, “You’re doing this thing wrong more than once,” I don’t think he’ll worry that I think he’s lousy at his job.

      Also, if you can immediately involve them in something, like helping to investigate and eliminate any problems that might trigger the error, or alerting their teammates, etc., might make it seem more “us strategizing together” and less “me alerting you to your mistakes.”

      1. OP*

        I despise the sandwich. It feels insincere! I can probably do a better job of celebrating positives separately though.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          The rule of thumb I have heard is that you have to give a compliment five times to be heard once. While I am not recommending you compliment everyone five times, I think that it is good to know that they might not hear you on some compliments.

  8. Karen D*

    OP’s practice of providing constant, constructive feedback is a great one if it’s handled in a supportive way. But it might not be aligned with that corporate culture.

    At one point, I worked at a company that blatantly cossetted its employees. The few managers who actually pushed on performance issues were regarded as “mean.” When I was hired on, I was assigned to one of these and benefited from the fact that I was one of the few members of his team that he could really coach – and he was actually a pretty dang fine coach at that, but getting very bitter because he was never allowed to bruise any of the tender flowers entrusted in his care.

    Meanwhile, non-productive employees were gradually maneuvered into positions where their lack of performance wasn’t a real issue. The saddest thing? Some of those could have been really good with a little more discipline. But that was “not the way we do things here.”

  9. MoinMoin*

    It seems like a lot of people (not just at work) use ignorance or lack of specific ordinance as a defense to get out of stuff. It shouldn’t work but it does, and it’s infuriating. Not sure if that’s what’s happening here, but that was my first thought.
    (On a related topic, my college had to add a rule that students were not allowed to hunt on campus or skin the animals in their dorm room. Guess why!)

    1. LBK*

      Hmm, I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here. It doesn’t sound like people are trying to get out of it – actually just the opposite, that they really did want that feedback, they just wanted it sooner so that they could’ve fixed the mistake earlier. I think there’s a difference between “why didn’t you tell me sooner?” vs. “no one ever told me”.

      1. OP*

        It actually does feel a little more defensive. They are trying to put the blame on me for not telling them sooner, rather than just agreeing to correct the issue moving forward so we can all move on.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          And why would they do that? Perhaps in part because they feel you are setting them up to fail. NOTICE I said “they feel that….”. Sometimes reality does not matter, people get a fear lodged in their brains and that fear takes up housekeeping.

          Among all the suggestions here, how about telling them that these conversations are to ensure their success. You don’t want to see them fail, you want them not only to keep their jobs but to be DARN good at their jobs.

          My friend went for her driver’s exam. At 28, she had extra time to let the fear in her mind get reeeally big. The examiner got into the car and the first thing he said to my friend, “I am here to help you become a better driver.” With that my friend exhaled, did everything she was supposed to do and passed her exam. Sometimes the only thing between a person and success is fear.

          Oddly, in order to get the results you want, a part of your job might be comforting/reassuring people.
          One thing that has helped me is thinking of it this way, nervous (even defensive) people CARE about their jobs. People who don’t care have no need to get nervous/defensive. This can vary, of course. And not everyone does well with the reassuring type approach, some folks need a different approach.

    2. Mrs. Fenris*

      The outdoor writer Patrick McManus did that in college, and really freaked his roommate out. He had hunted and fished his entire life, and it never occurred to him that anyone would object to him dressing an elk or cleaning a fish in their shared space. :-)

      1. JessaB*

        One is not supposed to dress large animals in an indoor space used for living in. One is either supposed to field dress or do it in a space designed for that (IE a barn.) Fish if smaller is a different thing entirely. But NO one should not be dressing an elk in a dorm room. Contamination issues, cleanliness issues, etc. Seriously.

        1. Zombii*

          This. Dear god. My sibling is a bit redneck but he still always had the grace to use the garage for skinning game, not the living room. (Fish in the kitchen sink were another matter, but as long as they were dead I didn’t care.)

      2. paul*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t think twice about someone cleaning a fish in the communal kitchen. Or dressing a small game animal (now a deer…that’s messy as hell and you get blood everywhere).

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I am trying to picture how that elk would have fit into a dorm room. I see the deer here. They take up a lot of space. And he must have had a very large fridge/freezer. Yeah, I’d be a little freaked, too.

    3. TootsNYC*

      The little motel at the edge of my rural hometown has a sign like that in every room–but they’re in the heart of the best pheasant-hunting territory in the world.

  10. bunniferous*

    I am one of those overly conscientious people and hate doing stuff incorrectly. My personal preference would be to be told the first time that something was not your preference. I could see myself reacting precisely like your reports do.

    For me I would either need an explanation that you were not stewing and waiting for me to screw up, or else an acknowledgement that my preference is to know immediately. *shrug*

    1. fposte*

      I’m fine with hearing the preference, but I’m not likely to explain that I’m not stewing, because that’s a level of emotional management that seems out of place in a professional interaction.

      1. Snark*

        Agreed. You’re totally in the right to request feedback as immediately as practical – with the understanding that that might not be instantly – but you have to give your boss the benefit of the doubt that they’re not stewing and waiting for you to screw up, unless they’ve given you evidence that they really are that petty. Expecting an otherwise good boss to disclaim their intentions before giving you feedback is insulting to them and, as fposte noted, a level of hand-holding that’s not reasonable for anyone to expect.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            That would do it for most people. It’s a good thing for OP to keep in the back of her mind.

            The way to combat this is to tell the people that they will be receiving feed back at x interval. OP can explain that the interval is loose because sometimes she is tied up doing x, y, or z.
            I believe OP said they were considered more senior people so they can also be encouraged that this is the process for more senior people.

            One question I would have is “Has anyone ever been written up based on these talks?” Just me and my cloudy thinking but if the answer was “very rarely” I would believe that answer over “nope, never”.

  11. Jesmlet*

    I’m curious what kind of mistakes they’re making. If it’s on something new that’s just been assigned to them, why wouldn’t you give the feedback right away? Personally if these are procedural mistakes that are things that would be repeated, I’d rather know the first time it’s noticed. I don’t think it’s all that nitpicky and clearly these employees would rather know sooner as well. Part of being a good manager is recognizing what type of feedback works best with each employee and adjusting in order to give them the best chance to improve. It’s not something you’re doing wrong, they just want corrections sooner so don’t feel bad doing that.

  12. NW Mossy*

    This type of reaction is so, so, so common among conscientious people – it really stings to know you’ve made a mistake and to have that mistake be observed. In my experience, that internal bad feeling of “I got caught doing something bad” is pretty deep in some people, and there’s not necessarily a lot you can do to prevent people from feeling that way, no matter how sensitive you are in your delivery, timing, and tone. As Alison noted, people bring their experience with all other authority figures, past and present, into their relationship with you, and some of those past experiences probably don’t align with your more constructive approach.

    What you absolutely can do, though, is name this reaction for what it is to you – a form of resisting the feedback you’re giving. You can say, “Hey, Fergus, I’ve noticed that when I give you feedback and ask you to handle something differently in the future, you often react really strongly and give off the impression that you’re trying to explain why what happened isn’t your fault. I just want to be clear that when I give feedback, I’m not doing it to assign blame, punish you, or make you feel bad – I’m giving it to you so that you can be more effective in the future. I don’t expect you to be perfect, and I know you don’t have a time machine to change what happened in the past. I know you’re approaching your work with good intentions, and I’m committed to doing the same in managing you.”

  13. Antie*

    OP mentions that it is just specific people and this mirrors my experience. Our nonprofit draws employees who are perfectionists by nature… always got A’s in school, turned in 10 pages when the teacher asked for 2. Sometimes these people just have a really hard time hearing they weren’t perfect…. if I had only told them sooner they could have avoided this imperfection. It is exhausting, but I am learning to not let their defensiveness prevent necessary conversation. It’s just part of what managing them entails.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      This is also something for us perfectionist types to think about with our own managers. I think it’s okay to express “I wish I’d have known about this earlier, so I could have course corrected sooner” but it does sound like the people the OP is talking to are overreacting and trying to deflect the blame back on the OP.

      Honestly, making a public mistake is like 1000 deaths to me. I’ve had to train myself to not take feedback about it as if I’m being told it was the worst thing ever, and to make sure my reaction is only “You’re right, I made a mistake,and I’m sorry” and ask for feedback on how to correct/prevent it, or lay out what I can do to correct/prevent it.

      1. Oh It's That Girl*

        Ha, I almost had a meltdown this morning when a manager (not mine) told me some data on a report I had done was “shitty”. He’s very, very to the point (I actually like him a lot, he’s really funny and kind of a classic teases you if he likes you type) and I’m both a perfectionist and somewhat defensive in nature so hearing this without freaking was tough!

    2. Snark*

      It’s also their emotional burden to shoulder, not yours. You simply cannot be a volunteer and be so defensive that you can’t hear from the people you’re helping how to help them better.

      And, just as an aside, there’s a difference between “I must do it perfectly,” which counts as perfectionism, and getting defensive over being told that they didn’t do it perfectly the first time, which does not. You’re not responsible for forecasting every potential error a volunteer could make, and fully briefing them on every single one, so as to not jar their fragile ego.

    3. AP*

      I’m one of those people and I’ve worked really hard to take feedback as an opportunity to improve and not let it sink my battleship. Partially disengaging emotionally from professional stuff has helped- I joke that I will work hard all day long, but I bill extra for emotional labor. And while I’m kidding, I’m sort of not. It’s helped me build a little firewall between Public Me and Private Me and I think I’ve been more successful for it.

      And it’s been helpful to see defensiveness as a burden to the person giving the feedback, who also shouldn’t have to do that emotional labor! I think you help make yourself a valuable employee by essentially making it easy for your manager to assign things to you, give feedback, and then see results without it being this big emotional process.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        If they did not see value in us, there would be no need to give feedback. Write us up, start the PIP, ship us out the door. People don’t invest in situations that are doomed to fail.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      OP one way you can help ease this perfectionism stuff is to talk about error rates. I worked one job where a 10% error rate was OKAY. Yes, 10%. I was totally floored by that. I figured the allowed error rate would be less than one percent. It blew me away. I ended up with an error rate of around 3/100ths of one percent. My bosses were happy campers.

      If percentages are not applicable to your setting,then talk about why some errors are not important enough to backtrack and fix. Talk about what types of errors are a bfd and will get a person in trouble. Give them reference points, guidelines that are fairly consistent over time so they can learn the patterns for themselves.

    5. Julia*

      I would say that handing in ten pages when asked for two is not perfectionism. As a teacher, imagine everyone did that! It also means you struggle to follow instructions and be concise. And if you get better grades for that than someone who actually followed the instructions, that would be pretty unfair.

  14. akcipitrokulo*

    It sounds as if the one-one coaching and the quiet chats are different occasions – depending on how far apart they are, would it be worth mentioning at regular catch-up sessions?

    We have an hour-long 1-1 every two weeks – there have been a couple of minor things that my manager has mentioned during them, because it’s the right place to bring up things like that (or things I’m not sure about or unhappy about but not at the “we need to talk now” level). It works well – but at the start, having been in a less than ideal office, did stress me out a bit. Now it’s just “this is how things are going” catchup that’s ok, and a very positive thing.

    1. Alton*

      I think this could be a good idea because it might make it clearer that the OP’s decision to mention this stuff when she does is mostly organizational (it can make sense to save non-critical feedback for regular 1:1 meetings), and not because this is stuff that’s been secretly bugging her for a while. If these interactions feel very sporadic, that might help create the impression that they’re specifically being triggered by the OP having an issue with something.

  15. LBK*

    Hmm…I actually disagree that I’d want my manager to wait until something had happened a few times before they said anything to me. This may just be my perfectionist tendencies, but I’d be horrified to learn that I had doing work with noticeable mistakes on it and no one was telling me so that I could fix it. I take a lot of pride in my work and I’d want the opportunity to fix that specific deliverable, not just have my manager tell me a few weeks or months later that I’d now made that same error 3 times so I could fix it going forward.

    Maybe it depends on what the work in question is and just how minor these errors are, but thinking of my own work, I’m with your employees – it’s embarrassing enough to have your manager point out an error, but to let me just be casually sending out bad work multiple times without saying anything? I’d be mortified and annoyed that as my manager you hadn’t told me so I could fix it sooner.

    1. Anon This Time*

      It is a lot of work to screen your team members’ work products all the time. It depends on the industry, but it’s not always the manager’s best use of time to do so. On my team, I don’t review every single thing (way too much work and not a good use of time), but if there is an issue, I’ll work backwards to determine the extent of the issue. Then I can tell if it’s a one-off, or if it requires addressing, retraining, or a change of SOPs.

      When I first starting managing people, I was amazed at how much work it is to manager people. And the better and more productive your team, the more work it is.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, this is what I was thinking. Sometimes I’ll say “Hey, A, not B,” but sometimes I’ll wait until B is a pattern–or sometimes I only notice when B has become a pattern. Otherwise I’d be counseling every typo or similar error when mostly they’re one-offs, and that’s not an efficient use of managerial time.

        1. LBK*

          Oh, I’m thinking more along the lines of errors that actually affect the quality of the work.

          Maybe this is because everything I do involves numbers and those numbers have to be right. There really aren’t a lot of times where I can send something out that’s wrong and not have it be important to fix it immediately. Just the other day I got an email from the head of our finance department asking me to re-send a report because one of the numbers was in the wrong color; there’s very little margin for error in what I do.

          1. fposte*

            Ah, whereas very little here comes out without going through me. If stuff was up publicly I’d definitely ask for an immediate change.

            But now I’m mulling if asking for a fix is the same thing as giving feedback. To me, “Change ‘pubic’ to ‘public'” is a standard thing that I wouldn’t think of as feedback. Closer would be “the program name isn’t capitalized and it should always be capitalized,” but to me feedback is more like “you’ve mistyped ‘pubic’ for ‘public’ in three drafts this month; please make sure you proofread for that.”

            No conclusions, just thinking about different workflows and how things get corrected in them.

            1. LBK*

              Oo, I think fix vs feedback is a good distinction. I’m definitely thinking more about fixes, whereas it sounds like others are reading this to be more about behavioral feedback (which might include identifying a pattern of fix requests and providing feedback about overall attention to detail or whatever other behavioral change may be required).

            2. Sprinkled with Snark*

              I would agree with that, but do you think some of these “fixes” would warrant such a reaction as a staffer being visibly agitated with “You never told me!”?

              You: Change pubic to public. Change penile to penal.
              Staff: WHAT? YOU NEVER TOLD ME!!!!

              I am guessing the nature of their work is more procedural or something. I wish OP could elaborate more on what kind “mistakes” they’re making, or are these general updates or changes to office procedure. One way is a funny typo they should immediately understand why it needs correcting, and I can’t imagine someone being so upset over something obvious like that.

              1. LBK*

                But in the OP’s case she’s waiting until they’ve done it a few times before she says something. If the error were saying pubic instead of public, wouldn’t you be pretty horrified to discover your manager had let you send out multiple documents with that error on it and didn’t bother saying anything to you?

                1. fposte*

                  @LBK–Not necessarily (and this is again, I think, where numbers are different from words).

                  I expect to see and catch a certain amount of errors. I raise the issue when the error rate is too high for the position, more difficult for me to correct, or indicates another significant kind of lapse from expected work.

                  So most documents I get are going to have way too many one-off errors to usefully comment, and pubic/public isn’t necessarily worth singling out from other errors on a first appearance.

                2. LBK*

                  Right – I think this goes to my point below to animaniactoo. If you’re catching it during your normal QCing process before it’s distributed, no problem. If you’re catching it after it’s been distributed, I want to know that because at that point there’s more impact to my reputation to have a mistake out there for others who are expecting a finished product to see.

              2. OP*

                OP here. It’s writing work. We write content on behalf of our clients. The mistakes we’re talking are super minor grammar things, or using the wrong word, and other stuff along those lines.

                1. TootsNYC*

                  Speaking as a supervising copyeditor–I think you should start alerting your writers when you see the mistake. As close to “in the moment” as you can get.

                  But the wrong word? A dangling metaphor? I’d bring them up–quietly! and short!–at their desk the moment I spotted it. “Oh, hey–it’s ‘bad rap,’ R A P, sort of like ‘don’t knock it.’ ” Or, “This is a dangler–the fog is not driving down the road.”

                  And walk away.

                  Consider it “continuous training.” Deliver the info in an “you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe” tone.

                2. LBK*

                  I think if it’s something concrete that has to be/should have been fixed before the piece is published, you should be letting them know the first time. I’ve never worked in that field so I don’t know what the workflow normally looks like for this but I would think that it would be a normal thing for an editor to be sending back edits to a writer, even just as an FYI afterwards if you already made the edit yourself for stuff like grammatical issues or typos.

                  And if these are being caught after the fact on published work, especially if it’s by the client, then I’d definitely be telling people the first time. That’s not just about coaching, that’s about reputation, and I’d think any good employee wants to be made aware of things that could impact their reputation with clients ASAP.

                3. fposte*

                  Another editor weighing in. If the grammar error fell into a pretty common pattern (misplaced modifier is a good example) I’d mention it first time out, because that’s scaffolding that future writing will be built on; word use would depend on whether the word is likely to come up again and if the misuse is funny :-). As I said, I probably wouldn’t worry about a single “pubic.”

                  But don’t you have the option of just sending the writers back your edited version of their copy so they can see the changes? Let them “self-tell” based on that, and request that they keep a running personal style sheet with reminder tips for anything that’s a pattern. They can ask you the reason for a change–but first they have to check in OWL and the dictionary to see if they can figure it out themselves.

            3. Whats In A Name*

              You put into words exactly the type of example I was trying to come up with as a good example of where immediate feedback is a time drain and not always necessary. I am not sure what type of feedback she is giving to these employees but this is exactly what I am envisioning.

      2. LBK*

        But as others were saying above, I think that’s exactly why it’s important to deliver the feedback the first time you notice it: because you’re not sitting there reviewing their work all day, so if you’re just catching something, who knows how many times it’s already happened? And even if you do a full review and see that it’s just a one-off error, if it’s another month before your next review, they might do it 2 more times in between.

        I understand that there’s a balance between coaching and nitpicking/micromanagement, but I think you can strike it better than just never bringing something up until it’s happened multiple times. Again, though, I think this depends a lot on what the error is. In the work I do, if a number is wrong on a report I send out, that could have huge impacts to a lot of people who are trusting those figures to be right in order to do their jobs correctly. If no one tells me that the number is wrong until it’s been wrong 3 times, that’s a complete disaster for me to go and clean up.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          With something black and white like numbers, absolutely. I’m picturing things that are more like “when you’re talking to clients, a better way to explain this program is X.” If you did that every time you heard something that was slightly off, it would quickly feel overly nitpicky and demoralizing.

          1. LBK*

            Totally agreed. I think having an idea of the feedback the OP is providing in these instances would be helpful; if it’s more stylistic than factual, then I’m on board with waiting until it’s happened a few times.

      3. NW Mossy*

        Oh, if I reviewed every deliverable my team produces, I’d drown – that’s something like 3,000-5,000 pieces per year! Work that faces the customer is reviewed, but 90% of that work is done by more senior individual contributors rather than me as the manager. Most other teams in my org work the same way – the manager only gets involved in a minority of the quality-control work, where either their particular expertise and/or their approval authority is required.

    2. animaniactoo*

      Most of the time, it’s allowance for one-off human error. It’s more unlikely to be repeated than it is likely, so reporting every minor instance is nitpicking and counterproductive to a healthy working attitude from both sides of the fence.

      When it’s happened 2 or 3 times, it becomes clear that it wasn’t a one-off human error and is then a subject for actual correction because it is clear the employee has it wrong rather than got it wrong this time but actually knows it correctly.

      For example: 6 + 7 is 13. Employee ends up with a sum total of 14 in a document. The strong likelihood is that this is a typo and not worth doing more than correcting it yourself (unless several other numbers are miscalculated on the basis of that 14) and moving on. However, if the employee has now gotten a sum of 14 more than once, the stronger likelihood is that they don’t know this particular sum OR they are consistently miskeying. Risk assessment now means it’s worth saying something because you’re preventing a future mistake that is likely to happen again.

      1. animaniactoo*

        So… a whole bunch of convo happened while I was typing and funnily enough I picked a numbers example. But I think that it still speaks to the point of when it is – from a risk assessment standpoint – not worth the time to do more than fix it yourself, and when it is worth the time to do more. Because fix it yourself is 2 minutes and has other intangibles riding on it like how the feedback is being received, etc. which require additional attention.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Sigh. “fix it yourself is less than 5 seconds and having a convo (even via e-mail) is more than 2 minutes”. I got tripped up using the mathematical symbols there….

        2. LBK*

          I think I generally agree. The one point I’d emphasize is whether catching the error is happening during a built-in QC process prior to delivery or if it’s after the fact.

          For example, one of my jobs is compiling the monthly commission data for our sales team. I get files from my coworkers that have errors on them that I just fix myself because that’s part of my job as the filter before we actually submit. It’s the reason we have multiple layers of people, because obviously mistakes happen.

          That’s different than if the error is caught by the salesperson after she receives her check – once there’s a real impact involved beyond me just having to fix it, I would definitely go back to the person after one incident, even if it was just the result of a typo.

          1. LBK*

            (But trust me, I am all for just fixing stuff rather than going back with corrections where applicable. As Sebastian says, “if you want someting done right, you gotta do it yosself”.)

      2. fposte*

        Yes to all of this. Mentioning every error or move short of the desirable would be madly micromanaging, and I don’t think people really want to be on the receiving end of that any more than most managers want to dole it out.

        1. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*

          There’s so much detail in our, in all of our jobs, that I only mention things if I see significant patterns. Any one of us can make a detail mistake and it’s our habit to fix somebody else’s mistake when we see it. Now if there’s a pattern, I or a manager will say something.

          Interestingly, the only time I recall defensive responses like “you never told me/should have told me/Iwas never told” were from newer people who Did Not Work Out. That’s a kinda kiss of death around here, saying those words. The standard response is “really? gosh! I’ll watch out for that! thanks!”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            On a routine basis, I agree with you that the remark is a crutch for not doing the job.
            And OP could point out to them if nothing else here is working.

            Since OP has only seen it a few times and has not addressed it with anything yet, I am kind of optimistic that this one will get resolved. In the end, OP, if you think you have addressed it several times and do not see changes you could say, “I noticed you say that a lot.” Then launch into a story about how you or a friend used to say that and how you/friend learned a lesson about not saying that. Land on something to the effect of it’s best not to say. “you never told me/should have told me/etc and you should just focus on fixing it moving forward.”

            1. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*

              I agree. It might even just be a verbal tic.

              Wakeen’s is to the end of a spectrum, I think, in that with so many details, it’s impossible for the best person to not make at least a few mistakes a day, and with constantly changing processes (usually out of our control), it’s easy for the best person to forget to update to a new process/revert to an old process/repeat an incorrect pattern. The people who last are the ones who care about high quality + can roll with making mistakes & hearing about it.

  16. cko*

    I agree with the “defense mechanism” thought. It’s hard for people to hear anything that could be seen as criticism, so often they will counter with “why not sooner” or, in my experience, “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

    Regarding the first, I’ll usually echo what’s suggested here, and say something like “there is room for error; I typically don’t mention it until it rises to a certain level” or something like that, then get back to “how we can prevent the errors in the future; what do you need from me; let’s work together” etc, interspersed with active listening, reflecting, and all the important communication style strategies.

  17. JMegan*

    I actually see this as a manipulation tactic, as a way for people to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes. It isn’t *always* deliberate, and I hear what people are saying above about their own perfectionism and so on. But in my experience, more often than not it’s an attempt to derail the conversation and shift blame to the manager. So you end up talking not about the mistakes, but about about the timing of the conversation. Sometimes it becomes about the medium, or the tone, or something else, but whatever it looks like, it’s never about the person who made the mistake.

    I would actually skip Alison’s scripts above, unless the “why” of the behaviour is really important to you. If somebody says “why didn’t you tell me sooner,” your answer is “I’m telling you now, so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Keep focused on the goal of the conversation – preventing future mistakes – and don’t get derailed into an argument about how to have the conversation itself.

    1. Stellaaaaa*

      I think it’s because OP lets it go the first time, possibly making the correction without telling the employee. If I found out I made a notable error but wasn’t told about it when it happened, I would totally say, “Dude, you should have told me about it the first time I did it.”

    2. Sprinkled with Snark*

      Absolutely this. That was my very first reaction when I first read OP’s letter, that this is a bit of a manipulation tactic, or some pushback issues. I think “I’m telling you now” is the perfect response to that. Why continue a conversation on and on about when and where they should be told, what must they all be thinking and feeling about it, what internal and distant factors from the past would make them feel this way? This isn’t therapy, it’s their job. Especially since OP says she’s a rather new manager. If your supervisor tells you, “Fergus, from here on out, it’s important that you write the teapot reports in blue pen instead of red crayon”, then a professional and appropriate response from Fergus should be, “That’s not a problem.” Thank you Fergus, everything else looks good.

      If Fergus has questions, the conversation should be about the reports themselves. Why blue? When should I start? Why the change? Whatever. Why should a manager waste everybody’s time by essentially “apologizing” to Fergus (and the people he agitates) because she didn’t tell them soon enough? He’s being told at that time, in that conversation, this is the correct/new/updated procedure, thank you very much.

      1. Lynxa*

        The way you mention this, though, doesn’t make it sound like a correction. You are just telling them that, going forward, they should use blue pen.

        If you tell them, “The teapot reports are supposed to be done in blue pen instead of red crayon,” the person very well may be thinking “I’ve been doing them in red crayon for months! Why didn’t you let me know I was doing it wrong before?”

        But I’ve had jobs where every single thing was saved up for the annual review, so by the time they were brought to my attention I had 1) well entrenched habits that were harder to fix, and 2) paranoia for the next year because I knew they would let mistakes go for MONTHS but still hold them against me.

      2. Alton*

        The thing is, I’ve been in situations where someone freaked out because I’d done the report in crayon, after I’d been given instructions saying to do it in crayon and had no reason to think it was wrong. How reasonable feedback is depends on context and how it’s given.

    3. Alton*

      Eh, I’ve learned the hard way that some managers/workplaces are really bad at giving consistent or accurate information, or are prone to forgetting what they have and have not said. And sometimes you do have to stand up for yourself in situations like that. That’s obviously not the case here, but it can be easy to get burned by bad situations.

  18. setsuko*

    It sounds like bringing this up at the one-to-one meetings is making it a bigger deal than it probably should be. Can you not let it go the first 1-2 times that it happens, but say something in the moment if it happens again? I don’t see the need for a meeting.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      Since she talks about trying to give the feedback, informally through a 1-1 conversation, IM, and Email, I don’t think she is actually having a “meeting” She’s attempting to do exactly what you suggest.

  19. AW*

    Is it possible that they’re (mistakenly?) think they’re being told that the thing in question is something they should have known? Or that these are instructions they would have expected to hear ahead of time and they feel they’re being asked to mind read?

    If, for example, there’s a new template for a specific report, that’s something someone would expect to be given a head’s up on, not something that would wait until it’s been done wrong twice. I’m guessing it’s not that type of feedback but it could be that *they* think it’s that kind of feedback, that these are things you can/should be telling them preemptively.

    1. mf*

      “Is it possible that they’re (mistakenly?) think they’re being told that the thing in question is something they should have known? Or that these are instructions they would have expected to hear ahead of time and they feel they’re being asked to mind read?”

      THIS. My manager has a habit of asking me to do a task and then, after the task is done, telling how precisely she wanted to me do it. Basically, she expected me to read her mind. So my reaction is usually along the lines of “Well, if you had told me earlier…” because I feel frustrated and demoralized.

      OP, ask yourself if you’re being upfront with your employees about your expectations? Are you communicating what you want from them in a proactive way or are you only communicating your expectations as *reaction* when things are done wrong?

      1. Manders*

        Yes, this! It’s hard to tell from OP’s letter if these are objective mistakes, like doing a calculation wrong, or subjective mistakes, like not following the right process. If there’s a frequent issue in this department with people not following the right process and then saying they should have been told earlier that there was a mistake, maybe there’s an issue with that process not being clear enough/OP getting information from above that isn’t being passed along to employees/trainers giving out incorrect information because they don’t actually understand the new process/whatever.

  20. MaybeALittleParanoid*

    If it’s just one or two people, it could easily be a defense mechanism based on past experience. I know I’ve been in workplaces in the past where issues weren’t addressed until weeks after the fact or (my favorite) yearly reviews (the same job that did that also unceremoniously let me go for basically no reason other than the fact that the executive I was assisting was leaving the company and not being replaced despite the fact that they routinely told us, “We believe we hire the best people, so if your role isn’t a good fit, we’ll find you one that does” and the like). Because of those experiences, I know my knee-jerk reaction to ANY correction in my next job was, “Oh, they’re mad and I’m about to get fired.” It wasn’t my new manager’s fault; just a residual reaction from a previous workplace that happened to be pretty toxic.

    1. Manders*

      Good point. Also, it sounds like this company is very informal when it comes to feedback and discipline, and that can scare people. I work at a similar company, and when a few people got fired without warning or any announcement from management about why they were leaving, it spooked everyone else because we didn’t know why it had happened or whether we would be the next ones to go.

      If employees are seeing that, and they’re also getting corrections only after they’ve made a mistake several times, they may have a reason for feeling insecure.

  21. Rusty Shackelford*

    You’re interpreting their response as “Why didn’t you tell me sooner that I was making a mistake,” but is it possible that they’re really saying “Why didn’t you tell the correct way to do this on day 1?” Maybe this is a training issue.

    1. Snark*

      That’s possible, but it’s completely impossible to accurately foresee every error and item of feedback someone might need during training. You just can’t anticipate what an individual will need in the way of explanation and scaffolding ahead of time, even on something as simple as the correct way to perform a task. I’ve had it happen often that the way I explain how to do something just doesn’t gel the first time, and I have to explain it with more drawings or in a hands-on fashion.

    2. NW Mossy*

      Also, it’s significant to recognize that a “hey, can you do this differently the next time?” does not necessarily mean that the way you learned to do it was wrong. Sometimes it’s a style thing. Sometimes it’s because there’s an unusual nuance to the situation that calls for a change in approach. Sometimes you’re changing gears altogether and you’ll do things the new way across the board from now on. Doing something differently in the future is just that, and we shouldn’t default to assuming that it means we were wrong in the past.

      1. 2 Cents*

        Maybe there’s a disconnect between the OP and the staff, where they think she’s changing the rules on them, but really, it’s a style preference or one of the things you mentioned. Nothing made me more annoyed when someone would correct me “because it’s wrong,” rather than “that’s our style.”

        1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

          Oh – this is absolutely my pet peeve! If someone says “hey can you format your spreadsheet vertically rather than horizonatally? That’s how I prefer to see them”, I’m totally on board. 100%. No questions asked. Very happy to change or redo things. If you come up to me and say “You’re doing these wrong – format them vertically” without explaining why it’s “wrong”, my brain just goes haywire. I’ll do it, but it just set me totally on edge.

          PS: this is a true example. I had someone tell me setting up a spreadsheet to run horizontally was wrong. A spreadsheet that I used for personal tracking purposes. That no one else would ever see or use.

          1. Marisol*


            “wrong” according to who? what standard is in place, that the work is objectively “wrong”? I have the same quirk, and in my case, I acknowledge that I am oversensitive, but if someone is going to criticize I think they should try not to be cavalier about it.

          2. 2 Cents*

            LOL talk about managing the wrong things! My more spiteful self would have arranged it to display only as a bar graph or something then.

  22. Stellaaaaa*

    I think it depends on the specific nature of the job. The manager has built it into her approach that people will inevitably make a fair amount of mistakes and will never really stop making mistakes that need to be spoken about. There are some industries/positions where errors are just par for the course, but I’ve also had managers who approached every conversation with me as if I’d done something wrong. I hope I’m explaining this correctly…I’m reading OP’s question as “How do I deal with the mistakes that I assume my staff will keep making?” but are they really MISTAKES or just things that tend to happen in the job? Alternately, are the employees very young or maybe not good fits for the roles? I think OP might need to adjust her perspective a bit…if people are constantly making mistakes, there’s a problem with the process. If people are reacting badly to conversations about this stuff, it might be because you’re speaking to them in a disciplinary way about things that they don’t perceive to be within their control.

    1. Whats In A Name*

      I just had a flashback to childhood when my mom came home to a completely empty dishwasher and an overflowing sink of dirty dishes.

      My 11-year-old self responded “well, you only told me to EMPTY the dishwasher”.

  23. commensally*

    Are you starting by saying “I’ve noticed a pattern” or “I’ve seen this happen X times now” or something like that? Because if so, especially if you were really specific about when or you emphasized the repeated nature of the problem, I would immediately imagine you’ve been carefully watching me and stewing over it and noting down every time it happened and wondering why I hadn’t read your mind about the problem and other employees have complained about it to boss and….. It would worry me, especially in a workplace with no formal evaluations where I know everything will just be based on my boss’s general impression of me. (I wouldn’t complain to boss’s face but I would probably go back to my desk and brood for awhile.)

    If that’s the case, I would suggest that when you bring it up, at least with these particular employees, you give them plausible deniability that it was the first time you noticed it. Don’t bring it up the first time it happens, and don’t lie, but when you do bring it up, just say, “I noticed you doing a thing, can you do other thing instead,” rather than starting with “You have been doing the thing over and over again and I have noticed every time.” That way they can pretend you haven’t been noticing it over and over and that if they fix it now you won’t think it’s ongoing.

    If they then switch to complaining that you spoke to them the first they ever made the mistake and that’s unfair, you can then mention that actually it wasn’t the first time, but at that point you know they’re just trying to shift blame rather than being genuinely worried.

    1. fposte*

      I’m not comfortable with this as a manager, though. I don’t say “You have been doing thing over and over again,” but as discussed above, I think “You didn’t capitalize the title” isn’t feedback the way “Sometimes your titles aren’t getting capitalized–can you add in check for that?” is, and I don’t think the first substitutes for the second.

      1. commensally*

        Yeah, saying “sometimes this is wrong, can you do x going forward?” wouldn’t tense me up the way something that emphasized you’d seen it many times would do, so that’s probably not the problem, them.

        (I did have a manager whose default for a first correction was “This has happened five times on X dates, it needs to be fixed now”. That’s fine if they’ve already been warned and it’s happened five times since the warning, but for a first comment it comes off very differently from what you’re doing.)

  24. 2 Cents*

    I wonder if it’s just one or two staff members, if they interpret these one-on-ones as “only happening to them.”
    Employee A (who doesn’t freak out when criticism / corrections are given): Just met with OP boss for our weekly meeting. It went well, there was nothing of note.

    Employee B: OMG, just got called to the “principal’s office” (OP’s one-on-one) again, and OP told me that I messed up on X, Y and Z. Every time I go in there, I find out something else I did wrong. And she only tells me after the 2nd or 3rd time I’ve done it, so I’ve had no chance to correct it!

    FWIW, I’ve been both Employee A and B at different points in my career: Employee A when I really felt my manager has my back, will listen to my concerns and complaints with an open mind, and couches the negative feedback with even a quick “you did a great job on that random report,” and Employee B when I was being micromanaged in other areas of my work, never received positive feedback or a simple “thank you for your help on X” or was just unhappy with my job overall.

  25. Clever Name*

    I once overheard the following conversation between a manager and her two direct reports:

    Manager: So, here’s some important information directly from the owner of the company. Blah blah, information given.
    Employee 1: Well, so was Owner ever planning on telling us this important information??
    Employee 2 to Employee 1: *sigh* Really?
    Manager: ….Well, I’M telling you this important information right now.

    It was so weird. It sounded like Employee 1 was just trying to pick a fight.

  26. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

    Personal anecdote – I used to respond to feedback very similarly to LW’s reports. I had a nightmare job where any minor mistake I made was attributed to laziness. Got to my next (much less dysfunctional) job and I definitely carried some trauma/bad-job-ptsd over with me. Any feedback I received I wanted to be sure my manager understood that I WASN’T LAZY. I would panic and blurt out: “oh that’s how I was trained” or “why didn’t someone correct me? That’s how I’ve been doing it since I started – however many months ago”. My goal was to let the manager know that there was a reason I did it that way (however wrong that reason), not just pure laziness. I always tried to followup with “but I understand the issue is X and will change how I do it in the future”.

    It took awhile to break this habit.

    1. mf*

      Good point. It’s likely the OP’s employees who are doing this are just trying to ensure that the OP doesn’t think they are lazy or incompetent.

  27. Delta Delta*

    Ooh, the lack of performance reviews is not your friend here. I’m guessing these are folks who have never had any sort of feedback (positive or constructive) and who maybe don’t entirely know what their jobs are. It’s very hard not to have any sort of guidepost of how things are going and then to hear x or y is going wrong. It may be that x and y are easy things to fix, but when it’s already sort of unclear how they’re doing, this can feel like a disaster. Maybe one way to patch this up a little would be to keep doing the feedback when it happens, but also to do periodic check-ins with everyone on how things are going. Not official performance reviews, but enough 1:1 face time so that when there is a feedback session it doesn’t feel strange or like being in trouble.

  28. hbc*

    I think you also could share some of your thought process. In your own words, “I…don’t even care the mistake happened beyond my professional responsibility for quality control.” Or “It’s not my management style to jump on every single instance that could be a one-off error, but by the same logic, I’m not holding it against you or anything. If something is a big deal, I’ll tell you the first time I notice it.”

    That should help if they’re reacting that way due to perfectionism. If they’re doing it as a tactic to argue with your correction (i.e.: “if it was okay before, it should be okay now”), they might take advantage by assuming they have a Get Out of Jail Free card no matter how massive the error, so deploy with caution.

  29. Bellatrix*

    It doesn’t really sound like you’re doing anything wrong.

    Here’s something that works for me though: I often rough draft documents that are reviewed and revised by senior colleagues and then sent to clients. I like when they cc me on the outgoing email because I can see what needs to change to get my work to their level. It also doesn’t feel like a reprimand because this is simply how the roles are divided in my office and I’m not expected to perform at a senior level just yet.

    If your workers are producing similar deliverables, that might be a good approach – let them know what needed to be changed without explicitly making it a criticism. But this only works if this is really just”room for improvement”, rather than when employees are performing below standard – that would need to be to be addressed head on.

  30. Jeanne*

    I am wondering what the previous manager was like. A bad manager can cause issues for years. I had a manager where he waited until he was thoroughly fed up with our mistakes before saying anything so it was always like being called on the carpet. He would also keep mistakes from March to put in the November performance review without ever mentioning them. So your people could be assuming that what you talk about has been going on for a long time.

    But in the end, you can never give feedback in a perfect way so that nobody is upset. This may just be an annoying part of your job.

  31. Fish Microwaver*

    My workplace does the opposite. My managers jump on every little thing as soon as it happens, even if what happens is not an error per se. We work in a fast paced environment where sometimes I will take one call only to then receive several more and I just need a few minutes to complete the process. It gets exhausting to have to explain that I am still collating the information every single time and it irks me that they don’t trust or respect me enough to know that I know what I am doing . I am a quality worker, a go to person when there are issues so OI resent not being trusted to manage my work.

    1. TootsNYC*

      In a way, those people are doing to you what the OP’s reports are doing to her: Not letting her do her job in the right time.

  32. peachie*

    As the non-supervisor in this situation, I think it can be very helpful to create a culture where feedback can be constant and not necessarily “negative.”

    For example, I’ve rarely had conversations like the ones described with my supervisor, but I get feedback on a very regular basis–so much that it’s a regular part of our routine and therefore doesn’t feel like an evaluation of me.

    For example, I might get a casual, “Great job on that project! Just so you know, Miranda really has a ‘thing’ about getting responses to anything she sends, so in the future just respond when you get her message letting her know when the project will be done.”

    Is that a minor thing? Absolutely! But my ‘major’ work problems have all been, for the most part, a compilation of lots and lots of tiny things like this–tiny things that I DO want pointed out to me, even if it’s an error I only made once. I’m lucky that I’m in an environment where that comes very naturally; it’s then very easy to fix that one tiny behavior that might otherwise, say, contribute to a larger problem like “you’re perceived as lazy/rude/not a team player.”

    Some of the things in particular that I think make this work:
    – very frequent discussions–we’ll have a ‘conversation’ like this at least once a day (and by ‘conversation,’ I mean a short exchange, not a formal meeting)
    – we meet regularly as a team otherwise to create a space for reflection
    – we work as a team, so discussions feel like they’re about how our department/project/initiative is doing, not about how we as individuals are succeeding or failing–this makes it much easier to discuss criticisms, as they don’t feel nearly as personal
    – we make it a point to ‘debrief’ every project, no matter how big or small, pointing out what worked and what didn’t work and what we might want to do next time, which provides a natural opportunity for mistake-correcting
    – positive aspects are emphasized as much as negative, and all are treated as learning experiences
    – perhaps most importantly: everyone on the team knows that everyone else on the team cares about what we’re doing and is doing their best, meaning that any criticism is trusted not to be a personal attack, but part of a productive conversation about how to do better

  33. TootsNYC*

    I wonder if there’s someone else in the environment who is very blamey. Our top exec in my unit is a pretty blaming sort of person, and I have to work sometimes to get my team to realize that I don’t blame them when I bring something up.

    That influence could also come from a colleague; if one person has been trained by a toxic job in their past (or similar) to be extra defensive, they may be influencing the other folks.

    So I think it’s worth a sit-down with some of your team one-on-one to say, “Remember our conversation, and how you said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner’? I’m wondering if you can talk to me a little bit about that reaction, and why you had it. I want my feedback to be simply course corrections when needed, but it sounds like you were reacting as though it was a scolding. What’s going on?”

    Also, you might consider speaking up a little earlier in a differen tway–maybe go to the person who made the mistake and say, “Oh, hey, you saw that this went wrong, right? Would you alert the rest of the team in case this pops up again?” So make them mini-trainers on your behalf for their own mistakes.

    That makes them a force for correction, but it also means that the mistake is noted earlier–and without blame.

  34. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I don’t see where you are doing much wrong. I think that these two people do not have a clear understanding of the process. As I read, I could not tell if you QC’ed their work then waited three weeks to tell them what you found or if you QC’ed their work 3 weeks after the fact and told them immediately. If I was working with you I would wonder what’s up with that. Lacking a solid explanation, I would gravitate toward something sinister because that has served me well in the past. It was something sinister. Fortunately, my question to you would be, “You found this out three weeks ago, I am worried this means that I have had three more weeks to make the same mistake.” Then you could answer that concern.
    Not everyone frames their concerns directly. One thing I have done that has helped me is to answer each question thoroughly when I first hear it. I figure by the time they tell me they have stewed on it for a while and it’s a mountain inside their minds. Sometimes the question that is asked is NOT the question that is meant. Double checking can help, “Have I answered your concerns here?”
    If they ask a second time, I remind them that we talked about this earlier and ask them to give an example of something that worries them in this situation. An open-ended question like this gets people talking, once they are talking I can better see what is actually going on. In my case, I used to say, “I am here to answer your questions. If I fail to answer your question or ignore you, then you can report me to my boss. It’s part of my job to answer your questions.” This also helped.

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