In an office environment, there are plenty of reasons why corrections might be necessary. Factual errors or sloppy writing might put your company in bad light, or show that you don’t pay attention to detail. If you’re a manager, it’s probably a bit easier to pull aside a member of your team and alert them to an error. But what if it’s a fellow colleague you want to correct—or worse, somebody above you?
Here’s our eight-step guide to correcting mistakes in a way which won’t offend your fellow colleagues and leave you eating lunch in the bathroom, Mean Girls-style.
1. Consider the situation and your motives: Why do you want to correct the other person? Is it because the mistake could end up misleading a client or senior manager? Or is it because you like to be a smarmy know-it-all? In an office, people can get carried away with all sorts of perceived “ulterior motives” and office politics. Make sure you have the person’s best interests at heart before you start offering any corrections. Trying to show off by making others look uninformed won’t win you any favors.
2. Consider whether the correction is necessary: I have a gripe with bad grammar, though I’m not any sort of grammar guru myself. When I receive an email containing grammatical errors—as much as I want to correct them—that isn’t going out to clients or senior management, I hold my tongue. Correcting your manager on the differences between “your” and “you’re” every time isn’t necessary. Pretty soon you might find they’ve sent you an email telling you “your fired.”
If you’re checking your manager’s work and do notice some typos, it’s better to address them by saying something like, “Oh, there’s just a couple of typos in the presentation; spell check always gets it wrong for me too!” Which brings me to my next points…
Dale Carnegie has a fantastic section about how to correct people with humility and compassion in his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. Basically, he says we have no right to correct people when we’re often wrong ourselves but, if we must do so, we need to do it in a way that still makes the other person feel important. Here are some tried and true methods:
3. Never correct someone publicly: Always opt to do it one-on-one and make it look like the true fact has just slipped their mind momentarily. Giving them the chance to save face will help strengthen your working relationship instead of demolishing it with a “I-can’t-believe-you-don’t-know-this!” speech. Try not to use “you” when correcting; blaming the error on technology or other inanimate objects is always received better. The only time you might look at correcting someone publicly is if it will save a lot of time and hassle later. For example, if you’re in a meeting and everyone is talking about the completely wrong topic, helping them get on the right track will save a lot of time—just be tactful when you make the correction.
4. Don’t correct via email if you can help it (unless it’s a minor dispute): Being face-to-face with the person will help them see your true intent isn’t malicious. Tone is easily mistaken in an email, especially when bolding, highlighting, and italicizing come into play.
5. Do “the caveat”: Starting off a correction with, “I might be mistaken, but…” or, “I’m probably just confused, but…” makes the correction that follows more palatable. If you talk about your own mistakes first, people won’t be as defensive when you address theirs. It shows that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s no big deal. Also, it’s a safety net in case you find out you were actually in the wrong. I know I’ve had a couple of arguments where I’ve vehemently fought for a point only to find out I’ve got a huge serving of humble pie waiting for me at the end of an argument. If you’re in a meeting, saying something like, “I’m sorry, I could be confused, but I thought we proposed to do X last meeting, not Y. Do you mind if I just check my notes to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong?” will often serve to jog someone else’s memory as to the true course of action.
6. Back it up with facts: Until you prove that your version of events is true, you aren’t correcting someone, you’re just disagreeing with them. Make sure you have the facts prepared before you go in for the correction.
7. Make a feedback sandwich: To soften a correction, you can try sandwiching the
correction between two compliments. For example, “Hey John, thanks for sending that presentation through to me, it was really helpful. Next time, would you mind making sure the formatting is all right before you send it through? By the way, the client LOVED the slide on insights. I think that definitely closed the deal for them!” Don’t use them too often, but when you do, make sure the compliments are genuine!
8. You can’t win them all: Finally, you have to realize that some people just won’t accept your corrections, even if they’re offered with the best intent. If that’s the case, it’s best to not push it and let them find out in their own time.
To sum it up, before you correct someone, heed the words of the English poet Alexander Pope:
Men must be taught as if you taught them not
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Now that’s some Levo swag.
Have you ever had a conflict when it came to correcting co-workers? How did you handle it?
Ask Maxine Clark, Founder and Chief Executive Bear of Build-A-Bear Workshop, for her advice on how to tactfully make corrections!