It was a bit startling to hear both a mid-level manager and his senior level vice president query a management round table on the basics of providing effective feedback to the people they manage on a day to day basis. Understandably, managing people is an art that requires constant honing as with any other skill. They provided the example of a recent review, in which both the manager and VP thought the employee in question had done superb work. They highlighted how he had hit or surpassed his goals. The manager and VP followed up their positive reinforcement with some mostly minor criticisms of the employee’s behavior, and the employee left what was supposed to be a laudatory review feeling dejected.

A few points instantly sprang to mind (although due to the potential impropriety of a relative youngster providing management advice to his vice president in a management meeting I kept them to myself at the time).

The first, which was to the manager’s immediate question of how to point out what the employee did wrong, was that there is a critical order to behavioral feedback. The second is that feedback must be timely. The third is that cultivated management means the manager shouldn’t have to chastise the employee, but rather let the employee point out what he did wrong. I think the core of it is the same for employees, children, and dogs - and since dogs are the simplest example, I’ll run with that one.

When we got our dog he was one year old, so his habits were already deeply ingrained. It took months to fully house train him. I regularly came home from school to find him and a heaping pile of dog shit waiting in the kitchen for me. For a while he would run up to the door barking and wagging his tail, ever excited to see me and go out. This changed pretty quickly (at least when he shat indoors).

If I came home and scratched his ears and took him out to run in the field nearby and then disciplined him at home I would have confused the hell out of him. Instead I had to discipline him the moment I got home, or rather the moment I learned of his lamentable behavior. More to the point, I had to discipline him the moment he knew that I knew what he had done. If I came home and saw a mess I would bring him over to it by the scruff of his neck and firmly tell him “No!”. A “shakedown” or submission roll reinforced the point. Following the discipline I gave him a cooling off period where I didn’t talk to him or otherwise interact with him (maybe 5 minutes), and then approached him again without any anger lingering about me. This was the time to reinforce that he was still my dog and I was always ready to play with him. He won’t forget the fright being caught in the act - or close to it - and yet he doesn’t carry any general fear.

Likewise, whenever he did something good - like shitting outdoors or obeying a command - I had to give him praise right then and there. The immediate feedback - negative or positive - ties the feedback to the exact behavior you want to reinforce or prevent. If I told him to sit and then five minutes later start yelling “good boy, good boy!” and throw a treat his way, he’ll certainly be grateful, but he won’t have any clue as to why I’m praising him. He’ll like it, but he won’t associate it with his obedience.

So criticism should always be followed by positive reinforcement, and praise should never be followed by negative feedback. The relationship between the two is not transitive!

The third point is that the person (or dog) in question should be counted upon to know what he’s done wrong, and be able to point it out himself. In the event an employee is ignorant of or unwilling to divulge how precisely he erred, the manager should lead him to that discovery instead of point blank telling him. This is not true for a new charge, of course.

In the years following those intense - and messy! - months of house training, my dog finally stopped using the house as a toilet. Almost altogether. Almost. Every great once in a while he still has an accident. The great thing is that I no longer have to discipline him. In fact, I can tell what he’s done just his body language and how he looks at me. He’ll walk up to the door quietly, wag his tail a little bit, look at me, then glance aside, and usually walk off into the kitchen. There he stands a safe distance from the deed and watches me. As long as he’s out of sight, I then clean up the mess and give him the cooling off period, but without discipline. He is well aware of what he’s done and repentant enough (I imagine) that it would benefit neither of us to go through with it.

People aren’t so simple however, and usually our screw ups aren’t either. Developing this behavior in employees doesn’t always go as far as it does with a dog, since - surprise! - we’re not dogs. The key with people is to get them to explain why their behavior deserves a reprimand. The first and necessary step for the manager is to point out what the employee did. Maybe even when for his benefit. The mistaken step is to then tell the employee why it was wrong. That is, of course, if the manager hasn’t skipped ahead to the disciplinary action steps.

People learn best by doing and/or explaining things themselves. So the manager should then put the onus on the employee to explain why the behavior was wrong. This thought exercise may require some patience on the part of a harried manager, but it forces the employee to think through the consequences of his action. By doing so he not only learns (hopefully) but may also come to empathize with his manager by thinking through the ramifications of his action. Not to mention the employee is far less likely to walk off feeling spiteful.