How to change behaviors, from "Great Managers Are Always Nice" by Chip Averwater

Chapter 12

Changing Employee Behavior

Managers are often challenged by employee behaviors that need to be changed. Tardiness. Absenteeism. Improper dress. Wasting time. Long smoking or coffee breaks. Disorganization. Procrastination. Failure to prioritize. Safety violations. Non-business internet use. Wasting supplies. Damaging equipment. Distracting coworkers. Excessive personal phone calls or texting. Offensive language. Off-color jokes. Extended lunches. Leaving stations unattended. There are too many improper employee behaviors to list.

There is no such thing as a perfect employee (or manager). Our role as managers is to encourage our imperfect but talented and willing team of humans to achieve extraordinary results. We have to expect some behavioral challenges along the way.

How to Change Employee Behavior

Fortunately, not every infraction needs to be addressed. Those with insignificant consequences and that are unlikely to be repeated are often better overlooked. “Running a tight ship” is an admirable goal but not by being “an iron-fisted tyrant.” Better to conserve our influence for more important issues.

Likewise, our long-term employees deserve some latitude. They rarely need us to explain what’s expected, and they’ve proven their commitment to the team and its goals; we can sometimes assume unusual circumstances, at least for the first occurrence.

But most other inappropriate behaviors do need to be addressed and changed, especially since what we choose to ignore often becomes standard practice.

But how do we do it? We sense the conversation will be awkward and embarrassing to the team member. We dread having it and we tend to put it off, hoping the problem will go away on its own.

Some managers procrastinate until they can no longer contain their frustration, finally blurting it out in ugly exasperation. A manager losing his temper is not an inspirational sight. The employee and everyone else who hears the outburst resents it as needlessly harsh. “If that was a concern, why didn’t he just say so?”

 A tempting workaround is a general announcement and reminder to the team. But that unnecessarily subjects the whole team to a negative and undeserved lecture. Most team members know who the message is for and recognize the method as an attempt to avoid a direct discussion—a poor example of the open communication we want to create.

Nor is it effective to joke or tease the employee about changing behavior, to try to innocuously slip a recommendation for change into another conversation, or to send a message through other team members.

The only appropriate method for changing behavior is a private conversation, directly with the employee.

The tone should always be respectful and supportive, not confrontational. Our words and manner should reflect our belief that the employee is a willing team member, eager to do what he can to help the team achieve its goals.

Model Conversations on Changing Behavior

A simple and inoffensive opening is mentioning that we noticed the behavior, asking about it, and allowing the employee to explain.


1st Conversation on Punctuality

Haley, a new employee, shows up for work 30 minutes late. Mike stops by her desk.

M:  Haley, I noticed you were late this morning. Is everything OK?

H:  Yes, I’m sorry. It was.... [traffic, my alarm, car wouldn’t start, etc.]

M:  I see.


Asking sometimes reveals an unexpected reason for the employee behavior. A late employee might have had an accident, taken a child to the emergency room, or spent the night at the hospital with a sick parent. Expounding on the problem her lateness caused before finding this out would come across as insensitive and uncaring, especially to a team member already coping with a difficult situation.

The fine art of changing behavior is applying just enough influence to change the behavior without creating resentment or an adversarial relationship. Better to err on the side of understatement than to come on too strong. We can elaborate further when necessary, but we can’t take back the resentment of a perceived heavy hand.

Indicating we noticed the problem is often enough to correct the behavior, especially if the employee is aware of what’s expected. If the employee doesn’t know what’s expected and why it’s important, we can politely explain.

In most cases, nothing else is needed. A good team member will try not to disappoint us again.

If the problem recurs, we can again indicate we noticed and ask about it. If an acceptable reason isn’t offered, we can mention the problem it causes, ask how they might avoid the problem behavior in the future, and offer our encouragement.


2nd Conversation on Punctuality

Haley is on-time for several days and then comes in 30 minutes late again. Mike finds an opportunity to talk with her privately.

M:  Haley, we missed you this morning. Did you have trouble again?

H:  Yes, unfortunately. I’m sorry. It was.... [traffic, ...,]

M:  When you’re late, someone has to cover for you. Is there something you can do to ensure you make it on time?

H:  I guess I’ll have to set my alarm a little earlier. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.

M:  Thanks, Haley. I know you can do it.


The third recurrence of a problem, especially in a short time, sometimes indicates a character flaw that we can’t fix.

If it’s a behavior we can’t live with, it’s time to politely remind them that we need a person in the job who performs appropriately and encourage them to be that person.


3rd Conversation on Punctuality

After coming in on-time for more than a week, Haley shows up 45 minutes late. Mike stops at her desk to talk while no one else is near.

M:  Haley, I was surprised to see you were late again this morning. Did something happen?

H:  I’m sorry, Mike. My.... [weak excuse]

M:  I’m worried because that’s three times in a couple of weeks.

H:  Yes, I know.

M:  Our team really needs a person in that role who’s dependable. Do you think you can do it?

H:  Yes, I can do it.

M:  Do you have a plan to fix it?

H:  Well, I’ll….

M:  OK, we’re counting on you, Haley. If there’s something I can do to help, let me know.

H:  Thanks, Mike. I won’t let you down.


There’s never a need to explicitly threaten an employee with termination. The understanding is always clear that if they can’t or won’t do the job, we have to get someone who can. Several discussions are sufficient notice that their past performance is not adequate.

Companies and organizations at high risk of employment lawsuits sometimes want it spelled out in writing for the employee, as discussed below, but few employees really fail to understand the situation.

Contrary to the popular misconception, reprimanding or imposing discipline won’t turn an employee into the team member we need. Discipline and threats imply that the employee follows the rules only to avoid punishment. If an employee accepts that implication, they’ll do the minimum necessary to get by in all their work.

Such an adversarial relationship is the opposite of the team commitment we need and work hard to create. What’s worse, the adversarial attitude sometimes spreads through a team like a cancer.

If a few conversations don’t correct an inappropriate behavior, the employee simply isn’t the team member we need, and we should make a change.

More Model Conversations on Changing Behavior

Since conversations to change behavior are among the most uncomfortable of a manager’s responsibilities, let’s watch Mike handle another...


Previous: Coaching One-on-One
Next: Managing Underperformance


Changing Behavior, from Great Managers Are Always Nice
Great Managers Are Always Nice is available at in print ($8.95) and Kindle ($2.99)