Are you holding back?

Are you holding back?

The benefits of giving immediate feedback: And the 3 pitfalls to avoid.

When is the appropriate time to discipline staff? The phrase ‘praise in public, correct in private’ has been a mantra I have always worked from.  I still believe it to be true, but am thinking that sometimes we need to respond immediately, and that might mean saying something unpleasant in front of other people? Do you put off disciplining staff members, or do you say what needs to be said then and there?

If not done well, disciplining in public can appear like public shaming and having the following unproductive consequences:

  1. Create an Us and Them Culture

When a manager walks into a shared workplace and berates an individual a survival response is triggered – in the whole team. Typically the rest of the team will feel a need to take sides.  They will feel the discomfort of their fellow team member and have a natural instinct to protect ‘one of their own’. The manager will unknowingly have created a hostile environment – for him or herself.

This ‘survival’ reaction is mitigated if everyone can see that the comments from the manager are completely justified and fair. In fact the Managers comments may be welcomed by the rest of the team.  It will actually help the rest of the team to feel more ‘safe’ if they see poor behavior quickly picked up and corrected.

  1. Reduce respect for you, the manager

The short video clip shows a manager coming in and berating his whole team for a work place upset. This is a habit I’ve seen from Business managers who are unwilling to have a difficult conversation with a particular staff member. Rather than single out the appropriate person for a discussion, they will make a general sweeping statement in a team meeting or in front of a few people hoping that the message will land on the person who caused the upset.

This strategy doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. There is no guarantee that the person the message is intended for will actually take the message on board; and the other members of the team, who are not guilty, will feel they are being unjustly accused.

  1. Nothing is achieved by being vague.


When messages are delivered to the whole team they are often quite vague, deliberately steering away from pointing a finger at one person. Too often, I’ve seen managers be vague in their disciplinary message. This tends to happen when:

  1. They are avoiding the possibility of upsetting one particular person
  2. They are emotional (angry)and are no longer thinking rationally
  3. They do not have enough evidence or facts to speak in specific terms
  4. Are actually angry over a number of issues; but they haven’t spoken up about them before, and so when they do speak out, it all flows out in an incoherent and meaningless rant.

Unfortunately, vague unsubstantiated outbursts cause a lack of trust and respect from team members for the manager, and don’t serve any useful purpose.

And yet, aren’t there times we need to discipline immediately and in public?

The idea of disciplining privately does suggest the need to observe inappropriate behavior and to make a note of it and follow up at some point later in the day (or week). But what if the right time never comes, and the behavior is now in the past, and by not mentioning it at the time, you have tacitly condoned it.

There are times when it is very appropriate to correct behavior immediately. There are times when waiting to give the critical feedback would dilute the effect of the feedback and make it next to worthless.

So how can you give negative or disciplinary feedback to a team member in public, whilst avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above?

  1. Form a Habit of giving immediate feedback.

If you, as the manager, are always giving feedback, both positive and critical, and you have built an open relationship that has fostered trust and respect, you will find it quite easy to give immediate feedback. Your body language and tone of voice will let the employee know you are not angry with them, but rather reacting to their behavior. When the relationship is strong you can be quite blunt without fear of being taken out of context or opening yourself up to a bigger problem.

  1. If the behavior is a one-off

It is easier to be quick to comment about a behavior that is a one-off and is out of character. You can quickly refer to the problem behaviour without making a big deal. You can word your feedback in a way that shows genuine surprise that they would act in this way. This allows the employee to acknowledge their mistake whilst maintaining their self-respect. However, if there is any on-going concerns, they need to be dealt with in a more structured and formal interview.

  1. If the Consequences are severe and immediate

Clearly there are some situations that due to safety or business viability may need to be addressed IMMEDIATELY. In which case, a confident manager will give immediate feedback addressing the behavior, and  quickly move the employee towards the more appropriate response.

  1. Your emotional state is controlled

If you have your emotions in check and are reacting to a situation, and not out of personality clashes or past failings, your message will register as authentic and you will get an appropriately authentic response.


The benefits of giving immediate feedback, even if it has to be done in public, can far outweigh the benefits of holding back when you see inappropriate behavior. Immediate feedback demonstrates that you care about standards and the culture of the organization. Immediate feedback gives all employees a clear framework of what is acceptable and what is not.

On reflection, I do believe there are times when a confident and effective manager can and should discipline in public.  And when done well, this immediate feedback will achieve greater motivation and increased productivity.