my employee argues when I correct her work

A reader writes:

I have a young employee who has a bad habit that needs to be broken and I’m looking for input in how to help her with this. I had a similar problem when I was her age and had it pointed out to me in a way that was rather hurtful, which is something I’d like to avoid.

She’s been with the company for two years as a part-time employee while she was in college and was just promoted to full-time. I’m her supervisor, but not her manager. I’m responsible for her training, her schedule, and those types of things, but I’m not responsible for her performance reviews or discipline. I’m the “good cop,” so to speak.

Here’s the crux of the problem: when I tell her something or ask her to change how she does something (because it’s incorrect), instead of acknowledging the correction with an “okay, I understand” she gives me an argument. Last night, I asked her to do X instead of Y because Y was the wrong thing to do. She then proceeded to tell me why she did Y.

This isn’t a case of Y could have been the correct thing to do if I’d just listen to her. Y was wrong.

I know I need to have a conversation with her and address it, what I’m looking for is some advice in phrasing “knock it off” in a way that isn’t hurtful.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 87 comments… read them below }

  1. Just Employed Here*

    I had a vacation day today, but spent most of it thinking about exactly this same issue, and how to bring it up to our recent hire tomorrow… Using all the AAM-approved methods and phrasings, of course!

  2. saffytaffy*

    I grew up in an environment where making a mistake was the end of the world, and I definitely brought that fear into the workplace. Maybe a lot of people do the same thing. I’m glad this manager wants to give feedback on this habit in a humane way. Good for you, OP.

    1. kb*

      Yes, I definitely think a lot of people do this in an attempt to prove they aren’t incompetent and don’t realize it can come across as argumentative. I think especially for people who are new to the workplace in general or even just new to a specific workplace, it’s coming from a place of, “Oh my god, I swear I’m not stupid, I had a reason! Please don’t fire me!”

      1. Wendy Darling*

        Yes! I also spent a bunch of time in an environment where I was not allowed to make mistakes (it would be held against me literally forever) and I tend to make excuses out of a place of “I am not incompetent or intentionally trying to annoy you! Please do not hold this over my head for all time!”

        Also this is why we don’t stay in jobs with horrible bosses any longer than absolutely necessary for sustaining life.

          1. Wendy Darling*

            I was super proud because yesterday someone asked me how to do something I didn’t know how to do, and I was like “I actually don’t know how to do that! I bet Wakeen knows, would you like me to ask him to show me or do you need it straight away?” as opposed to silently panicking and trying to figure it out on my own.

      2. designbot*

        Yes, this! She’s very likely just trying to convey that she did in fact have thought behind this, she wasn’t just ignoring you or blundering about her day randomly.
        Also, depending on the industry, I think some practices in schools encourage defense of an idea–I’m thinking of studio critiques in design, where you have to be able to explain why you did every little thing. It can be hard to know where the boundaries on that are for some of us.

      3. Betsy*

        Yes, I’ve definitely been doing this lately. I’m trying not to be so defensive, but sometimes I’m not sure to say after I’ve said ‘yes’ or ‘I understand’ a few times. I also do feel compelled to explain why I did something.

      4. TheTurtle*

        YES. This is exactly how I was when I first started working (and still am somewhat 6 years later). I don’t want to come off an incompetent and want to show what I was thinking. My first full time job was extremely toxic so I was constantly having to prove myself there and it bled over into my jobs later on.

    2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Yes definitely. It can also come from an internal desire for perfection, which was my problem. If I hadn’t done it perfectly, clearly I had failed and everyone would think I was bad at my job, right?

      Learning how to say “thanks, I’ll do X next time” helped a lot, instead of trying to explain why I’d done Y so that no one thought I was dumb… which actually made me look worse.

      Related and useful: learning that a sincere apology is a lot more professional than trying to hide the problem.

      OP I’m glad you’re addressing this now; I wish I’d learned this earlier.

      1. Amber T*

        Yes – I’m 5 years in at my office, 2 years in at my specific role, and there are still times where someone corrects me (politely! and it’s very much needed!), and my gut reaction is “But!! Let me explain whyyyy!!!” Because if I can explain my process of thinking and my rationale as to WHY I did it this way, then you can see that I don’t suck at my job! That I’m not stupid! And sure I’ll do it your way going forward but can’t you see why I did it my way???

        Most of the time it’s under control, but when faced with a scary new task and I feel overwhelmed (and am more likely to make mistakes), that side might come out a bit more.

    3. Alton*

      I’ve also had to learn to deal with making mistakes. Some people have an unhelpful instinct to try to minimize things.

      For me, it can also be a response to feeling patronized.

    4. Sketchee*

      Yes I’ve met a lot of workers who feel this way. I’ve followed methods similar to Alison’s to be helpful.

      A lot of “Great! Makes sense, please do X” when they explain.

      Or “Oh that’s okay that you thought that before, now do X.”

      Or even “Oh I know, we can’t prevent needing changes. We try our best to keep It’s part of the process to change work.”

      I also use the words changes or adjustments rather than mistakes or corrections. And say “Going forward do X” and “Next time do X”

      Anything to help them know it’s perfectly okay to make occasional mistakes. Being comfortable addressing it in the moment neutrally prevents the pattern

    5. KateS*

      Yep, me too. It took me quite a ways into my first decade of working to recognize it, as well. I wasn’t incredibly difficult to work with; in fact, I rarely had to be corrected but when I did, it could send me into a mental tailspin for days.

    6. myswtghst*

      I train new hires, and one of my favorite things to do is to encourage the tenured employees who come in to support my classes to tell stories of their mistakes and how they’ve learned from them, just as an example of “see, they screwed up, but they owned it and learned from it, and now they’re not only still here, they’re successful too!”

  3. kb*

    Yes, I definitely think a lot of people do this in an attempt to prove they aren’t incompetent and don’t realize it can come across as argumentative. I think especially for people who are new to the workplace in general or even just new to a specific workplace, it’s coming from a place of, “Oh my god, I swear I’m not stupid, I had a reason! Please don’t fire me!”

    1. CM*

      Exactly! I remember when this was first pointed out to me: “Will mentioned that when he gave you feedback on the assignment, you got defensive.” “Oh no, I didn’t mean to be defensive, it’s just that I wanted to make sure he understood what the assignment was, because the feedback he was giving me seemed to contradict… wait, I’m doing it right now, aren’t I.” “Yes.” “Sorry. I’ll try not to do that in the future.” And I got way better about it. But I thought about that conversation often, and really appreciated that my supervisor told me about it in such a straightforward way.

  4. Cajun2core*

    Alison- Thanks for including the “or if you’re just helping me understand why you did Y in the first place.” phrase. This is what I often did in the past and I am still tempted to do at times. Not everyone recognizes that this is what people are doing and often incorrectly take it as a challenge rather than someone just explaining their logic and reasoning.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      This. Bingo. When I was in high school and college, this kind of response was welcome and even encouraged. “Show me your thinking” kinda thing, right? And teachers will give you some credit for that, even if it’s just recognition of the good (if incorrect) thinking. So in the workplace, I wanted to reassure the person that I wasn’t an idiot, I had a good (if wrong) reason for what I did.

      It took awhile before I could see the behavior from the outside, so to speak, and see that it was the opposite of helpful. Now when I want to explain why I did the dumb thing to show that I wasn’t being dumb, I save that for my spouse or mother or close friend. My boss doesn’t need to know my thinking, and neither does my co-worker. They just need to know that I won’t do the dumb thing again.

      1. Alton*

        Yep, I think this is common.

        I would add that I think there are times when explaining your thinking to your boss can make sense if it’s done in a way that actually provides clarity (either for you or them). If you genuinely don’t understand what you did wrong or you were working off instructions that provided contradictory info, those can be good issues to bring up, for example. But there are ways to do that graciously while demonstrating a desire to do things correctly.

        1. Sketchee*

          Yes throwing in an occasional “Great I’ll make that change. At first I thought X and now I know that you need Y. I’ll get that to you”

        2. Betsy*

          Do you have any advice for someone who followed the instructions exactly? I’ve been ‘talked to’ about an issue around three times now, and my bosses eventually admitted (in the final conversation) that the problem was their fault, because they’d told me to do the wrong thing. I just really resented being basically scolded over and over, and I’m sure I came across as very defensive and argumentative. The issue was only a one off thing, so it’s not like I’ve made the same mistake over and over, and the only extra thing I could have done in that situation was sent a follow-up to one person to make sure. The main thing was that I was asked to do was to enter the wrong data, and I was just following the written instructions I was given.

          1. CM*

            You could try framing it as “please help me understand what to do” rather than “I did everything right” by saying something like, “My understanding was that I was supposed to do X, and looking back I’m not sure what I should have done differently because I think I followed the instructions. Is there something I missed?”

      2. Megan*

        Me too–I got into a loop with a board member reviewing a policy document I wrote. He asked for me to rewrite using a different approach, I explained what I was trying to get at with my original approach, and it turned into a 40-minute circular conversation that left him frustrated and me looking like an argumentative fool–because, of course, when I sat down and really looked at it, he was clearly right.

    2. hbc*

      Yeah, simply explaining why I did something is never an argument about why I will continue to do it. And I personally prefer it when I get an explanation from someone–if you thought Y was preferable because there were unique conditions, I can tell you that regulations insist on Always X, or that X is still better because someone else handles the associated weirdness, or that Y would have been fine but deviations require a signoff.

      I’m conscious of how it can look when I do it, though, so I usually do an explanation version of the Compliment Sandwich. “Oh, sorry, okay. I thought Y would be better because Reasons, but I’ll do X from now on.”

      1. kb*

        I also like getting an explanation because I’ve found understanding where someone was coming from can help prevent future errors or let me know that there’s more to the issue than what is immediately apparent.
        I’ve realized it comes across much better when you apologize first and make it clear you’ll do it differently going forward, then add a short explanation. This makes me think of that letter where the employee took someone’s juice that was on the table. He kept focusing on whether or not what he did made sense (in his old office people left things on the table to indicate they were up or grabs), when he should have emphasized the apology, offered to replace the juice, then added a quick explanation at the end.

      2. OhNo*

        I do the compliment sandwich thing as well, because I always worry that the person who’s correcting me won’t get that I am going to make the change, I just had different reasoning.

        Even knowing how it can come across, though, I do still like to give my reasoning for doing the wrong thing so I can get an explanation (however short) of why it’s X and not Y. I’m one of those people who needs to know why I was wrong, not just that I was wrong, in order for the change to stick properly in my brain.

      3. Material Management*

        The thing is, I don’t need or want to know why you did Y. I just need you to do X. And if you insist on explaining why you did Y, you just waste my time. It’s not a good look. People who do this are never strong employees in my experience.

        If you genuinely don’t understand why you need to do X, ask. Don’t keep talking about Y.

        1. Someone else*

          I think that could be a little harsh, depending on the context. If the person says something like “Oh, I understand now. I’ll do X in the future. I Yed because I had thought Z, but now I understand how X is more important/overrides that/whatever.” Then they’re clearly not pushing back AND it’s entirely possible once you hear that they thought Z either now you need to explain to them some other wrongness in their head, which you now have the chance to before it causes some other problem, or if the statement they just gave you, “yes X overrides/is more important/makes Z moot” good now you’re both on the same page. Or it’s a segue to the question “does Z not matter?” and you can clarify further. So it could be a productive conversation to know why they thought Y were correct.

          But that’s different than if they’re just nattering on about Y, ignoring that you said “Do X” and seem to be trying to talk you out of it. Those people probably won’t succeed, but the person who is trying to understand where they went wrong is probably a keeper.

        2. The OG Anonsie*

          I pretty vehemently disagree, and honestly I feel it’s pretty silly to decide that you’re asking for clarification wrong if you mention or compare to your current or previous understanding. If you’re new, less experienced, or dramatically off track, you may not know every question you’d need to ask to get the whole picture. Worse, you may have key pieces of information completely wrong, which you’re only going to discover by laying them out explicitly. Tallying it up the way you’re describing reminds me of uni TAs who hate reviewing lab reports, so they grade based on whether or not you formatted the thing correctly and don’t read closely to see if you actually got the process right. It’s easy to follow those rules, but the end result is that way more of your students are working off bad information that’s never being caught or corrected.

          A lot of factors go into a lot of decisions. If you know the end point is X but from what you know that doesn’t make sense, you’re going to need to walk through what you understand about those factors and find out which ones are on the right track and which ones aren’t. That’s often less true for people who have more experience, but for someone who’s new in any flavor of the word (to the company, to the group, to the field, to the project) walking through your knowledge or thought process with someone who will be able to tell you where you’ve got it right or wrong is extremely valuable and a totally normal part of training. That’s the whole reason you explain the damn thing in your lab report, for example. Binning it because the end point of Y is not correct next to X is asinine, and classing the whole thing as a waste of time and professionally inappropriate is even more so.

    3. bonkerballs*

      Yes, exactly. I often do this when a mistake is pointed out to me. I mean, I’ll always couple that with saying I understand why I should be doing x instead of y and will make sure to do x going forward so I don’t look like I’m pushing back or arguing, but it can be helpful to both you and your manager sometimes to talk through why you thought y was the correct course to take.

    4. LQ*

      One of the problems for me is when people do this with an urgent or time sensitive thing. When something is horribly broken, a site is down, a thing isn’t working. It needs to be fixed now. This is not the time for even explaining and trying to take time when you know the thing is not working to explain shows it’s own kind of bad judgement. We can talk later about why you thought that was a good idea, but right now I need to fix it or you need to fix it and that means stop talking about why and fix it.

    5. Jaybeetee*

      This was actually a big thing in my last relationship. Ex would point out something I’d done wrong (sometimes actually wrong, sometimes “wrong” as in “not how he’d do it”), and when I’d start explaining why I did it or my thought process, he saw it as arguing/defending/making excuses. In time, I learned not to do that around him unless I felt I’d had a particularly good reason for why I’d done something. In fairness to him, he’d let things go pretty quickly if he didn’t perceive I was arguing with him about it (though I always found him critical – big reason why he’s now an “Ex”.)

    6. The OG Anonsie*

      Thissss exactly. If you’re corrected about something and you’re not clear on why it’s supposed to be the other way, asking questions is the sane thing to do. Sometimes part of that is explaining that you thought X worked Y way, is that not the case? I understand Y is incorrect, but can you illuminate more about that so I know I understand the situation correctly?

      This is going to sound snippy but… In my experience the people who are ruffled by this are people who are generally upset with the concept of having to explain themselves, because they take it as a challenge no matter how you do it. Even if you clearly say “I thought it was Y, but since that’s not the case, can you explain where that diverges from X so I understand everything fully?” a lot of these folks tend to take some level of offense. The answer is indeed always supposed to be “yes ma’am” even if you have no idea what’s going on. They seem to feel that it’s better for you to follow an instruction than know why, because asking them about it is inherently inappropriate. And there are situations where that’s true, but for some people this is an absolute rule in their minds about what constitutes professional conduct.

      They also never, in my experience, address it with you directly. Everyone I’ve ever seen get upset about this has gone along with it in the moment and then furiously gone to the other person’s manager as if this person was doing something so wildly and outlandishly out of line that they could not even begin to deal with it themselves. It’s overall given me the impression that the people who have a problem with this are people who 1) feel that it’s both professionally inappropriate and extremely confrontational to ask questions about an instruction they give, and 2) have an intensely negative response to anything that smells vaguely like a confrontation, causing them to start shutting down their relationship with the question asker.

      Like, take this letter. You’re supervising and training an employee and you see her doing a version of this. And you don’t just, you know, see it as part of your role to have a conversation about it? You have to write into AAM to ask how to handle this behavior? I know we’re not supposed to snipe at the letter writers but my immediate reaction to reading this one was come on. I’m guessing that this employee, being younger and less experienced, needs to have it brought up to her that the way she’s doing this seems argumentative rather than inquisitive. I’m also guessing that the LW wouldn’t actually find an inquisitive direction to be appropriate either, though.

  5. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    I used to do this a lot and I’ve learned to now ask for the info that I’m needing to understand why they want X instead of Y at a later time so (hopefully) they will see I’m trying to learn instead of challenging. In my case, boss would say do X, not Y. I would start to explain my thought process, thinking that they would understand that I wanted them to stop me where I went wrong and tell me what I should have been looking for instead. Spoiler alert: my manager just thought I was arguing with her all the time.

    Now I circle back later (generally in a 1×1) and say something like, “I understand I need to do Y with the teapots but I’m having a hard time understanding how to know when to Y instead of X or Z. Can you help me understand the process better?”

    1. n*


      I find it really interesting that a lot of people’s immediate reaction to someone explaining their thought process behind an (incorrect) decision is that the person is being argumentative/defensive. But for some people, it really is an attempt to learn.

      Saying, “I noticed you did X, when you should have done Y,” isn’t necessarily helpful unless you explain *why* Y was the right decision to make. I often find myself wanting to explain why I did X because I want to present the factors and priorities that I was weighing when I made that decision. If I included erroneous factors/priorities, or forgot to include other more important factors/priorities that would have clued me in on the fact that Y was the better/correct decision, I’d like to know so I don’t continue to make that mistake going forward.

      I like your suggestion of circling back at a later time to ask follow-up questions one on one, which can feel less confrontational than asking for an explanation in the moment.

    2. CM*

      That’s a good approach. If it’s not something that needs to be fixed immediately, I also do sometimes address it in the moment by saying, “OK, so I should be doing X. I was thinking that I should do Y because ___, but it sounds like you’re saying X is better because ___. Is that right?” That way, the person knows I’m not just trying to justify what I did or argue, but am trying to learn.

  6. Cordoba*

    Don’t just say “Y is wrong, do X instead”. Explain the logic behind X, at least at a local level.

    “We do X because Sales also uses that data and they need this extra stuff”.
    “We do X because sometimes we build left-handed teapots and Y only works for right-handed teapots”.
    “We do X because the VP who gets this report likes it that way instead *shrug*.”

    I’m far less likely to push back on X and explain my alternative if I know that X is not arbitrary.

    I don’t even need a good reason for X, just some reason for X beyond “do it this way”.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      The thing is, if your manager is telling you not to do Y, you shouldn’t need this much explanation. Sometimes life is arbitrary, and you do Y because that’s what you do. If you don’t need a *good* reason to do X, why do you need any reason at all?

      1. Yorick*

        Right. If Y only works for right-handed teapots and you should always do X instead, all you really need to know is that you should do X every time.

        1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

          I really, strongly disgree with this. If I’m making teapots and I hope to progress in my career of making teapots, then I absolutely need to know that the reason I do x is because we only make right handed teapots. What if the company starts making left-handed teapots? What if I move onto a company that makes both right and left handed teapots?

          I’m fairly jr (in terms of time) in my career, but I’m way ahead most of my peers at my current role specifically because of this (I had to completely train myself in my previous role, so I had to start with the “why” and let that guide my “hows”). Current management has no interest in mentoring or actually teaching the jr employees why we’re doing the things we’re doing – they just expect them to keep their heads down work on their specific portion. Its such a huge issue because the jr employees are not able to make the connections or extrapolate from responsibilities that they currently have. There were giant gaping holes because work was split between three jr folks and none of them understood how their work connected. I’m more jr than all three of them, but because I understood the “why” I immediately saw these holes and brought them to management.

          Maybe this is touching a bit of nerve for me, because I can see so clearly the ramifications of this sort of mindset. Also – it’s the main reason I’m leaving my firm and specifically something I screened for in new places. I need a manager who wants to mentor their direct reports and impart their knowledge to those reports. It might be a bit more effort for them, but it’s also going to allow me (as their direct report) to provide a MUCH higher quality of work for them.

          1. Specialk9*

            Sunshine, you’re the kind of person who rises to the top, and you keep doing exactly what you’re doing. (So long as you’re asking the why questions when not under the gun.) Managers who demand that you do it ‘cuz I said so’, aren’t the ones who will help you progress, and are often threatened by people who reveal the gaps in their knowledge.

            1. n*

              Oh, wow. It hadn’t occurred to me until I read your comment that perhaps one of the reasons certain questions aren’t well-received is because it reveals a gap in knowledge. (Speaking as someone similar to Sunshine, in that I ask a lot of questions because I’m passionate and want to learn, not because I’m trying to be insubordinate.)

            2. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

              Thank you! And absolutely about the timing issue – I’ve been a bit tunnel-visiony in the past. I’ve worked on my wording/framing/phrasing when it comes to these situations (where I’m given feedback, I accept the feedback, but just want to understand the feedback). Now I’m trying to take a step back and look it a bit more bigger picture – is this the time to be having this convo? Is this the right person to have this convo with?

          2. Argh!*

            Some people are big-picture thinkers, but when someone like that is in a subordinate position they just have to learn to set that aside sometimes. The bigger picture isn’t what the Teapot Company has planned. It’s having a good relationship with your boss, and in turn a good reputation within Teapots, Inc. Demanding an explanation for everything is a good way to destroy good will. Your boss may be too busy for that and find you irritating rather than brilliant.

            You are not entitled to more information than your boss gives you. You can ask, and if they have time and know the answer, they can answer it if they want, but they get to set the rules for the workplace, not you.

            There have been many times my boss has given me too little information and then she was irked by my product. I tried to explain to her that knowing where she was going would have helped, and she was defensive and told me I should “just know” what she meant. She has an authoritarian personality and so does GrandBoss, so there’s really no point in demanding anything at all from them. I’m a replaceable commodity, as most people at the lower rungs are.

            So…. I’m looking for another job because my boss sucks and won’t change. Sadly, most bosses are not agile enough to adjust their supervisory style to the personalities of each of their reports. It’s much easier to let them go and search for someone who would be a better fit.

            1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

              I get what you’re saying – in that I shouldn’t expect an authoritarian boss to change their style for me. Totally true and valid. It’s exactly why I’m leaving my current role.

              At the same time, for the reasons that I described above, I think this management style is an objectively poor management style. I can’t change it at the micro level (my specific boss) – but at a macro level – I think this is a skill (the ability explain the why behind the hows/whats) that all managers should be encouraged to develop. It will make them better managers and in turn it will create a stronger, more capable and more efficient department overall.

          3. CMFDF*

            At my previous job, the data entry department had to do this very long and complicated process for each item. It was literally almost 40 steps. No one ever explained what purpose each step served (the explanation was literally “if these things don’t happen, the website won’t display the teapot and we need the website to display the teapot”). They were patient enough with new hires, because they understood it was extremely complicated for an entry level job, they expected people to make many, many absurd mistakes in the beginning, and even long after.

            I got borrowed because of short staff to multiple departments shortly after I was hired. Because of that, I worked with different parts of the program. No one in the company seemed to realize that we were all using the same program. Like, they knew, but they didn’t realize what it meant. When I came back to my department, they were surprised because the number of mistakes I was making was suddenly significantly lower than anyone else in the department – including the employees who’d been there since the start of the company, and my supervisor. It wasn’t because I was SO MUCH BETTER at the job than everyone else. It was because I understood, “oh, we check that box so that accounting gets this information,” and “we don’t fill out that field because otherwise the warehouse will think…” and “customer service needs to know this about that tab…” When I explained to my coworkers someone else uses that field from another screen to (whatever), they got better too. When I trained people, I would explain what each field meant, and they made fewer mistakes than previously expected. Because it’s easier to do things when you understand why.

        2. hbc*

          Yeah, but I find that the same people who fail to explain about the left-handed teapots will then be all “What the eff is wrong with you?” when you get loaned to the right-handed teapots team (or someone lets through a right-handed teapot order, or whatever) and you just blithely do X like you’ve always been told.

      2. Lala*

        Because “this is how it’s always been done” is not always a good reason for continuing to do something. It can be, but you want the people doing X to know why they’re doing that instead of Y so they can bring insight and ask relevant/more nuanced questions when appropriate. And so that new tech/etc. doesn’t pass you by.

        The circumstances for doing X instead of Y could change down the road–if you know the reason for X is just “this VP prefers it this way”, well, what if VP leaves and you *could* do Y, at some point that should be evaluated to see if maybe now Y or Z is a better approach. If you know the actual reason, be it good or bad, you understand whether or not that’s worth bringing up. If the people doing the work actually understand the reasoning behind what they’re doing, that’s usually a good thing.

          1. Argh!*

            Whoops… yes the LW is the manager. So many of the comments are from the p.o.v. of supervisees I got end-of-day-itis.

            Managers *should* be willing to handle suggestions of ways to improve things, but many are not. And many of the “improvements” suggested by eager fresh faces are impractical or costly. Explaining a few reasons would be fine, but it gets old really fast.

      3. Cordoba*

        In general people are happier and perform better if they know the context around their tasks. This appears to be a fairly common aspect of our species and is unlikely to change.

        Understanding the “why” also better equips people to see worthwhile improvements and continue to work effectively when circumstances change.

        For example, pretend that I’m a dog walker for hire in two situations:
        1) If an owner tells me “Always walk Rover to the park and back because I say so” then I don’t have much to work with if the streets to the park are closed for a parade.
        2) If they instead tell me “Walk Rover to the park and back. Any further and he gets tired, any shorter and he doesn’t get enough exercise” then I have all the information I need to come up with a good alternative plan if the streets to the park are closed. If it’s a mile to the park and back I can just plan another good mile-long route.

        In most cases it takes almost no time and no effort to give a one-sentence explanation of the “why” behind an instruction. It’s not practical in every case, but if a manager is good about giving the “why” when it is available then people will generally assume that a why is extant even in the cases when it is not fully explained.

        A bad reason like “VP wants it this way, don’t know why” lets me know that it’s not changeable or up for discussion at the level of my manager, but also that it’s not something she determine arbitrarily.

        Even the military is very big on people understanding their commander’s *intent* for an order rather than just the specific actions they want done. This is not something they do to be nice, this is something they do because people *perform better* when they understand why they are being given a task.

      4. Serin*

        If it’s an arbitrary rule, the manager should say that. “Because Aloysius prefers that it be done that way.” Easy enough.

        If it isn’t an arbitrary rule, the manager should explain at least a little bit about the reasons. That makes it easier for the employee to remember.

        And then a year from now if the software has updated or a new client has added a step or the regulatory climate has changed, it’s easier for the employee to notice and say, “Hm, this affects spout orientation. Better talk this over with the boss and see if the process needs to be adapted.”

        It does mean, though, that the manager needs to make sure to use a tone that says, “I’m giving you a bit of context about why the process works like this” rather than “I’m inviting your criticism of our process.” Which is easier with some employees than with others.

        1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

          The software update piece is huge. Soooooo many conference calls where I would remind someone that the reason we do it this way is because it has to talk to this program so that we get (favorable outcome) and we need to be sure that if we change it, that we still get the same outcome. If I hadn’t known why we did things a certain way, we would’ve just rolled stuff out and things would have broken all over the place. It’s amazing how many times an update would be made and then something that didn’t seem to be related on the surface would stop working. It was always because no one knew how X and Y related to Z!

      5. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        Because sometimes X and Y look the same on the outside and Y is faster. But, Y breaks Z outcome whereas X does not. If the person who is doing Y doesn’t work with Z outcome and just knows that Y is easier for them vs X, and looks the same to them, they are going to to do Y. I ran into this over and over again at my last job. Z would break. I would talk to the person who was responsible for X (multiple people worked on X but I had an audit trail to see who did it that time). Every time the response was “Y is so much faster. I didn’t know that Y would break Z.” Because someone just said “do X” and didn’t bother to explain WHY we do X.

      6. Betsy*

        That really depends on the position. If you’re in a fairly professional position, and you’re told just to do what you’re told, you’ll probably just end up quitting.

  7. Chatterby*

    A big thing to remember: the young employee has been there for two years.
    If she has been trained Y way, and been doing something Y way for two full years, you’re going to need a whole lot more justification than “Do it X way now.”
    Without it, she’s probably thinking you are super picky, keep bothering her over something that’s been perfectly fine for two years, and that her actual managers have not brought this up, so why are you so latched on to X? She may also have stronger loyalty to the person who trained her/ supervised her before you, and believe their method over yours.
    You need to offer reasons why she it’s X way now, and offer a grace period for the adjustment.
    If you do convince her that she has been doing something “wrong”, she’s going to be extremely annoyed that her original training was lacking, and that no one bothered to tell her the “correct” way a full two years ago, and I’d say that’s justified.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Nothing in this implies that Y is a new procedure, though. It might be new TO HER because of her newly-full-time status, but there’s nothing that says they changed anything from one method she’d been using to another.

  8. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

    Oof… I know I have done this (and probably still do to a certain extent – working on it!). For me it’s sort of twofold.

    1 – I worked for a boss that at any little mistake or basically just not being able to read his mind and do things exactly how he wanted at that specific day/moment/moon phase he would accuse me of being lazy. Every single time it was “I need you to stop being lazy”. It just got worse and worse with me trying desperately to get him to understand that I understood that these were mistakes, but it wasn’t because I was lazy!

    2 – I often use questions to demonstrate where my knowledge ends. Which I have realized can come across argumentative or defensive. I’m not trying to defend what I did or argue to keep doing it that way. I’m explaining why I did it x way so that the person (who I’m respecting as having more knowledge than I do) can fill in or tell me what part of the information I’m missing. I try to be sensitive to timing issues (if this is an emergency or time sensitive then I’ll shut up do/fix whatever and follow up later – but also if I don’t understand that it’s time sensitive, then a simple “hey, I’m happy to explain or talk about this later, but can you just fix this first. It’s time sensitive”).

    I’m just absolutely not someone who can do things without understanding why and how they fit into a bigger picture. Now I try to frame it as “Ok – will do y instead of x going forward, but can you explain why y is better than x. I just want to make sure I understand the nuances of this process”. Where I really struggle is if the person can’t explain to me why y actually is better than x. If any one has any advice on that I’d love to hear it…

    1. Argh!*

      Yes, it’s possible to do things that have no seeming reason. Just do it and carry on. The bigger picture for me is that I need my paycheck. Not doing something that’s legal and ethical is called insubordination and is grounds for termination with cause. I don’t like feeling like a cog in a wheel, but I have a supervisor who can’t or won’t explain things so I just do what I’ve been told to do. She’s 100% certain that she’s smarter than I am and that my two cents are irrelevant to her decisions.

      If you report to people with authoritarian personalities, it’s just not worth attempting any pushback. They are brick walls.

    2. Specialk9*

      You know that that old boss was being verbally abusive, right? That’s NOT normal or ok management behavior. If you have any ability to get to a counselor, that would be something useful to unpack.

      Abusive people train you to be in abusive situations – which means they train you not to do the right thing in healthy situations. It can take a bit of guided unsticking to get your head straightened out a bit, after, but well worth the effort!

    3. CM*

      #1 ugh, my parents constantly did this to me when I was growing up! I never just spilled the milk, I was a terrible person who could never be trusted. That’s just your boss being a jerk, not something you did wrong.

      #2 I think your reframing is perfect. If you still don’t understand, you can just say so — sometimes there really is no good reason, or you’re just not getting it. You could say something like, “I’m still not sure I quite understand, but for now I think it’s enough to know that I should do Y,” and follow up with somebody else later, like in a 1-on-1 with your manager you could say, “Fergus told me to do Y instead of X, but I’m not sure why that is. Could you help me understand?” I find that when the original person can’t explain in a way that makes sense, having another perspective can really help — sometimes the next person can explain it better, and sometimes they can fill you in on the time 10 years ago when Fergus was traumatized by X and never ever wants it to happen again.

      1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

        Oh – I really appreciate this! I like the wording on the way to end the convo with the original person and then the idea of asking someone else – just to get a different perspective/way of explaining.

  9. Hiring Mgr*

    One day in the future I might make a mistake or do something incorrectly. I hope if that day comes, I have a kind boss like the OP to set me straight.

  10. Anon Accountant*

    And she may be explaining her thought process so OP can say “this can’t be done because the reports won’t be accurate so do Y instead” and may not realize how she’s coming across.

  11. Argh!*

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

    If all 3 are “yes” I proceed. If not (usually it’s “no” to necessary) then I step back and think about it.

    I have a boss who rewrites everything. Everybody’s writing. Everybody’s everything. It’s a big waste of her time almost every time because she just wants to word things her way. I realized I had started doing that with my report, who was becoming very defensive almost to the point of becoming insubordinate. I had to back off of things that were a matter of taste, and only “correct” things that undermined the purpose of a piece of writing or a project.

    The other thing I realized is that my report is rather narcissistic, which affects things two ways: One, defensiveness at any criticism, and two (more subtle): difficulty seeing things from another’s point of view. Once I figured that out I realized I had to couch things as “This word has two meanings” or “This rule is xyz and we don’t have the choice of not following it.”

    If there’s pushback, I allow a moment of “Boy that’s a stupid rule” but I don’t let my report go on about it. “Well, it’s today’s rule, we’re stuck with it until BigBosses change their minds.” And that’s the end of it.

    It took me a couple of years to really “get” this person and to see how following my own boss’s lead was making my life difficult. That’s about when I started searching for blogs and books etc. to follow better advice than I was getting.

    Good luck! In my experience, it really does come down to getting to know the person better.

  12. Daria Morgendorffer*

    I think you may need to assess how you are setting tasks. If you need a task done a particular way, you need to explain the task upfront. Delegating tasks to people is deceptively hard and it doesn’t hurt to do some training or look at stuff online on techniques you can use. Letting people do tasks and then correctly is not as an effective way of teaching people tasks. Also agree with posters above. Try also telling the staff member why it needs X way. People are more likely to do as you ask if you give them a reason.

    1. Argh!*

      There’s nothing more powerful than an apology!

      “I’m sorry. I should have been more clear in the instructions. It has to be done this way. I’ll try to be more specific in the future.”

      It’s hard to argue with someone who admits to being wrong at the outset!

  13. SophieK*

    I’d like to gently suggest that since you were so embarrassed by having this tendency harshly pointed out to you that perhaps you are experiencing embarrassment for your younger self. As an analytical person with management experience I am very much on the side of delving into thought processes as a means of improvement. Athletes and other high performing people do this all the time–watching video of their performances and doing post mortems on mistakes. It’s a part of Six Sigma Lean as well as the Kaizen process.

    Where this is pushback rather than process improvement is illustrated by the following (unfortunately) true story.

    My boss hired a very young woman with little job experience who had dropped out of community college because (as we found out later) she kept picking stupid fights with her professors. She was also badly home schooled (yes, it’s wonderful for some but this young woman was done a grave disservice) and had waaaaaay too many non reality based opinions about everything.

    My boss gave her over to me to train, and while I’m a patient person, I quickly became frustrated. Her response to everything I tried to teach her is “are you sure?” No amount of assuring her that I’m very good at my job and that’s why I’m training her would shut her up.

    I became frustrated enough to haul her into a meeting with my boss. He originally thought it was going to be a cat fight, but when I called her on her contact questioning of me her response was “I feel I should be able to share my experiences of the job with you.” Simultaneously my boss and I both snapped that she doesn’t HAVE any experience of the job. She didn’t last much longer after that–I believe she was written off the schedule.

    I do think that a big part of being an effective manager is to realize which employees are analyzing out loud (and appreciating their commitment to increased performance) and those who are arguing and whining, either as a power play or victim schtick.

    There is no one size fits all answer here.

  14. Pollygrammer*

    Everyone is giving her the benefit of the doubt, which is great! But I want to point out: there are people (and a lot of them!) who just always think that they’re right.

    She may not just be explaining her thought process/getting defensive. She may be explaining why She Is Right and You Are Wrong, in which case the situation needs to be addressed a little differently.

    1. Argh!*

      Been there! I’ve had a report that left a meeting where I thought things were settled only to do an hour’s worth of web searching to prove their point. “Well, that’s interesting but the decision was already made, and for good reasons.”

      That never happened again. I will entertain discussion or debate or even pushback, but at some point the person has to accept that they don’t run the world.

  15. essEss*

    I used to do that whole explanation thing when I received correction or criticism. I wasn’t arguing the correction, I was attempting to show the thought process that brought me to the wrong decision so that the person could let me know WHERE in my logic I went wrong so that I can apply the difference to other decisions that I might encounter later to avoid making the same type of mistake.

  16. Adjuncts Anonymous*

    I would like to speak from the employee’s side. The problem might be that the manager’s directions were unclear, or that the manager changed her mind.

    I recently had to fill out a new form for my class, and I included all of the students who were registered for my class. My boss criticized me for including the no-shows, not putting students in alphabetical order (they were in alphabetical order by last name), and for not including outcomes for students who have dropped the class. How was I supposed to know not to include the no-shows when the directions said nothing about that? How was I supposed to know that she wanted last name, first name when the example on the template was first name last name? How was I supposed to know that she wanted outcomes when there is no space for it on the form? If I were psychic, I’d have a better job than a part-time adjunct!

    The first problem (omitting no-shows) was a matter of interpretation, and I am fine with leaving them off going forward. But I get defensive when I am criticized for following an example or not doing something that wasn’t even on the form. Managers, don’t be shocked when employees argue if you expected them to be mind readers and didn’t properly communicate.

  17. featherwitch*

    I think how you approach feedback and learning/development depends on the situation. If it’s little things that you’re changing or correcting , like “always put the incoming mail in the red basket”, then yeah, correct and say they’re wrong.

    However, if the person is doing highly complex, knowledge-worker tasks and approaches a problem in way that I am not expecting or seems wrong, I often say something like “I’m not so sure about how this flows or if the answer is correct. Can you walk me through your thought process?” This type of question lets me learn a little more about how that person approached the problem; I can figure out where they might have made a wrong turn or assumption. Then then I can ask “Did you consider this, how did you deal with this?” This feels like a more productive and collaborative conversation, and I still give the feedback on the work, as well as the process. And more than once, they’ve come up with something I haven’t thought of.

    1. only acting normal*

      +1000 on the knowledge-worker tasks.
      When I’m reviewing someone’s analysis work and they haven’t approached it the way I would, that doesn’t automatically make it wrong. I’ll check it for factual inaccuracies or miscalculations, but often a different approach it makes it more interesting for me to review, because there is rarely just one way to find an answer to the types of complex questions we work on.

    2. CM*

      That’s a useful distinction. While I’m a big picture person, some things are just “that’s the way we do it” and shouldn’t be argued about even if you don’t think it’s the most efficient way to do it. And I really like your approach to giving feedback by having a conversation where you ask the person about why they made the choices they did.

  18. Fish Microwaver*

    The situation where the OP has supervisory rather than managerial capacity could indicate poor management higher up. If so, Alison’s more gentle teaching approach is probably best. If the colleague comes from a background where poor management has made her defensive, a collaborative framework puts both in a better position.

  19. KJDubreuil*

    I have one employee who is very hard working, pretty smart, very accurate in her work and always tries to be very helpful. However she has a dreadful behavior of arguing adamantly in staff meetings or one on one. The arguments are circular in nature:
    She: Everyone in Teapot production told me they need me to order the smaller square Teapot Lids but I can’t find them on the supplier’s website any more.
    Me: They stopped making them so we are using the round ones and not making square Teapots right now.
    She: But all the people in Teapot production are yelling at me.
    Me: I told them not to worry. I told them to make round Teapots until further notice.
    She: They are constantly badgering me. I can’t get them to stop. It is stressing me out.
    Me: Just tell them the Boss said the square ones aren’t available. Tell them to talk to me.
    She: I told them that but they keep asking me to order the square ones.
    Me: Tell them they are not available. You are not being held responsible.
    She: But it is stressing me out that I can’t find them on the website catalog.
    Me: They are no longer being made.
    She: But they used to be on there.
    Me: They don’t make them any more.
    She: But I don’t want everyone asking me for them.
    Me: Just tell them to leave me a note so I know who is still asking for them and I will go to the person and explain.
    She: I tried that.
    Me: OK, try it again.
    She: It’s not fair that they are asking me.
    Me: You are the order person. They might ask you. Maybe they just need to know if they are available again. Refer them to me if they won’t take no for an answer.
    She: I don’t know what to do about them asking me for square lids when they are not in the online catalog.
    Me: I don’t know how to help you with that any more than I just have. They just don’t make them anymore. They are not available. The Teapot production department will have to figure out how to keep going without them. I told them that and they said they had a plan.
    She: but they keep after me!
    Me: OK

    What I wanted to say :don’t argue with me!

    I did go to the head Teapot production people individually and to all the Teapot lid packers and ask them all if they realized square lids were not being made. They all said they knew that. I asked them if they were requesting that they be ordered. Each person looked confused and said no, we know they are not available . . .

    So how do I work with this particular employee? Who IS arguing.

    1. WannaAlp*

      When she circles back, say that that has already been addressed, with some short polite-but-firm wording. Then if she keeps trying to go on her argument circle with the same concerns, then repeat the exact same wording. She won’t go on too long against a brick wall.

      If she tries going along a different tack, depends whether this is a valid concern; you can either address that concern as well, or jump to some wording that indicates that no more time is being spent on this. If this is in staff meetings, your staff will appreciate you shutting her down.

  20. KJDubreuil*


    Can you suggest some wording that is polite enough and firm enough at the same time? ‘Cause “they don’t make them any more” worked eventually but it took a long time and I got annoyed.

    Maybe I should say “They don’t make them anymore. I will definitely let you know if I find out that they become available again. Until then, let’s not have any more discussion about it.”

    In staff meetings it’s going to have to be more like “I’ll consider all the suggestions but right now we’re going to move the discussion to ‘new topic.’ I’ll let you know later what we have decided.”

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