Correct People Compassionately

Updated Nov 08, 2010
Correct People Compassionately

Excerpted from Sara J. Moulton Reger's new book Lead & Succeed (Excel Books, 2009).

Correcting people is a necessary, although difficult, requirement for leaders. Correcting people the right way can increase productivity and morale. Correcting them the wrong way, however, can lead to ongoing issues with both relationships and results. The Bible shows leaders how to be both firm and merciful at the same time. Follow these examples, and you will be neither a wimp nor a tyrant in how you handle people when they need correction.

Correct With an Eye on the Future

Hebrews is a letter written to New Testament Jewish believers. Chapter 12 of Hebrews covers the important topic of giving and receiving correction.

And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives."

If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. —Hebrews 12:5-11

It is difficult to correct others and natural to want to avoid confrontation and its backlash. Certainly, no one enjoys being corrected, and many people respond by becoming defensive, hostile, sullen, or depressed. But leaders need to put this into proper perspective. If we fail to give a deserved correction to someone due to fear of a negative reaction, then we are dodging a key responsibility of leadership. Conversely, we should always be ready to accept correction by those in authority over us. Choose to see correction—both giving and receiving it—as a necessary part of business life and a way for you to show respect for people and their long-term capabilities.

Live It

  • Acknowledge correcting people is an ongoing responsibility of leadership.
  • Check your motivation, and if you are correcting without genuine concern for a person's future, you need to examine what you are doing and why.
  • Check your emotions, and if you are overly emotional (for example, angry), use prayer to get yourself under control before taking action.
  • Acknowledge that giving correction is uncomfortable, and resist the temptation to wait, thinking it will be easier later.
  • Select the appropriate time to give correction—looking for a time when the recipient is most ready to receive it and has a chance to work through his or her own reactions.
  • Choose the place for correction, preferably somewhere private, and remember to remove distractions by turning off your phone, closing your door, and making sure you won't be disturbed.
  • Identify the problem and ask questions to give the person ample opportunity to give their perspective on what happened and why—and be willing to change your perspective about the situation if warranted.
  • Ask the person to repeat back your expectations—being sure to listen carefully and to clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Often during correction, people fail to listen effectively due to emotions, so be patient and repeat your expectations several times if necessary.
  • Set a time to follow up and review performance—being available to support the person's progress but avoiding the temptation to be too active in the work he or she must do.
  • Set a good example by constructively handling situations where you need to accept correction; it will increase your credibility and compassion.

See It

Early in my career, I was brought in to lead an intact department. Soon I discovered a member of the team who produced significantly more errors than others. In dealing with the situation, I followed most of the "live it" steps but failed in one of them. By focusing too strongly on the needed performance and ensuring he had the needed knowledge and skills, I neglected to ask questions to uncover his thinking about the work and the errors he made. Only much later in a long, difficult process did I come to realize we had different mind-sets about the importance of accuracy. Had I opened a dialogue through questions to get his perspective, I believe the situation could have been easier and more successful for both of us.

Surface Confessions About Failures and Mistakes

Genesis opens with God's creation of the heavens and earth and His initial dealings with humankind. Adam and Eve lived in the idyllic Garden of Eden where there were only a few rules to follow—one of which they broke. Genesis 3 tells the story of their failure and how God dealt with it.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" So he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." And He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?" Then the man said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate." And the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

To the woman He said: "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it': Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them. . . . Therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. — Genesis 2:15-17; 3:6-13, 16-19, 21, 23

Ever wonder why the all-knowing God questioned Adam and Eve about their transgression? He knew what had happened, so why didn't He just tell them what was going to happen as a result? He chose instead to ask questions to begin the process of accountability, consequences, and restoration.

When problems arise, leaders should begin with questions to solicit input and confessions from those involved. When you hand out consequences based on admissions of guilt, they are more likely to be accepted as appropriate. Also note Adam and Eve received different consequences. Discipline needs to be appropriate to a person's particular part in the problem or failure. Follow God's example, and experience more effective results when you must correct someone.

Live It

  • Establish clear "dos" and "don'ts" for each situation—and for important requirements, identify the consequences for noncompliance in advance.
  • Stay close enough to be aware of changes in how people respond to you; it may signal a problem.
  • When noncompliance is evident, use questions to ensure your understanding of the problem and identify people's specific involvement.
  • Allow each person to admit what he or she did to enhance your knowledge of the situation, and help them accept the consequences.
  • Assign consequences based on what each person did.
  • Consider whether some negative aspects should be mitigated for both the sake of relationships and for how others will perceive the situation; for example, the tunics God made for Adam and Eve reduced some negative aspects of their punishment yet kept the punishment intact.
  • Adopt a long-term view of the situation and ensure your actions address both the immediate problem and any likely future implications.

See It

A senior executive faced a particularly sticky issue with an heir apparent for one of his organizations. The man had just publicly displayed insubordination toward that organization's current manager—someone the senior executive intended to remove shortly. His first inclination was to move forward with his plan and promote the offender. However, the executive realized this action would "reward," or at least ignore, the unacceptable behavior. If he moved ahead with the promotion, it might encourage others to follow suit. So the executive met with the offender and used questions to uncover the man's view of the situation. He admitted his actions were wrong but felt they were justified given the manager's incompetence. The executive then announced his decision: he was going to transfer the man to an unfavorable department, and he would also be ineligible for the soon-to-be-open top position. However, the transfer would be only for one year, and additional promotion opportunities were expected after he returned. The consequences were severe yet measured in terms of the man's long-term career with the company. By his decision, and the way he handled the interaction, the senior executive sent a strong message to the organization about his expectations.

Address Unacknowledged Failures and Mistakes

Adam and Eve had children after they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Two of their sons, Cain and Abel, were participants in the world's first murder.

And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it." Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" And He said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth." And Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me." And the Lord said to him, "Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.

Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. —Genesis 4:3-16

Cain and Abel both knew how to make an offering. Otherwise, God would have instructed Cain rather than remind him to follow the proper method. But Cain chose not to do what he knew was right. When a person deliberately does not do what is required, it is often evidenced by a growing pattern. For this reason, it is best to address the first failure firmly—even if seems to be a small one—because it may prevent more serious problems. Cain's first failure, not following a known procedure, led to a very serious sin: murder. In confronting Cain, God used questions to seek an admission of guilt—then clarified the wrongdoing and assigned an appropriate consequence despite Cain's lack of confession. He also demonstrated the way to mitigate the negative aspects of a punishment without changing the punishment itself. It is easy to regret taking difficult actions with people, and this causes some leaders to later remove the punishment. Choose to be a leader who knows how to show firmness yet compassion by keeping the consequence intact and appropriately mitigating some of the negative aspects.

Live It

  • Ensure the requirements of each assignment are clear and understood.
  • Look for early warning signs, such as discontent and avoidance, and talk with the person to understand the issue and prevent future problems.
  • When noncompliance is evident, use questions to explore the person's understanding of what he or she did wrong—and give the person a chance to admit the wrong.
  • If the person will not admit it—and you know you have the facts straight—don't hesitate to take action, carefully communicating the failure and its consequences.
  • Listen to the person's response, but avoid the temptation to minimize the failure or reduce appropriate consequences.
  • If you learn new facts during the conversation, independently confirm the facts and decide if the consequences need to be modified.
  • Consider the long-term impact of the consequence and mitigate negative fallout if appropriate.

See It

One company found out the hard way the result of dealing with failures too harshly. Over the years, an inappropriate "zero defects" philosophy had morphed into a style of leadership that handled even innocent mistakes with serious, visible reprimands and consequences. When one employee discovered a serious mistake, she was panic-stricken and sought to hide her mistake. But it only cost the company more, ultimately resulting in a loss of approximately $40,000 for the small company. The employee was fired, and more fear was created. The leaders realized they needed to change their approach. A policy was communicated: employees who immediately brought their honest mistakes to management would not be fired. Their resolve was quickly tested. Another costly mistake was soon made, but this time the employee brought it to their attention as soon as it was discovered. The leaders had to resist the urge to fire the employee, but in doing so, they initiated a new, less fearful environment within the company.

Be Alert for Incorrect Mind-sets

This incident occurred after Jesus's disciples had significant and repeated experiences with His powerful teaching and miracles. By this time, Jesus expected a greater level of understanding than His disciples displayed.

And He left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to the other side. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. Then He charged them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "It is because we have no bread." But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, "Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?" They said to Him, "Twelve." "And when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?" And they said, "Seven." So He said to them, "How is it you do not understand?" —Mark 8:13-21

The disciples should have had a better understanding than they demonstrated in this situation. Jesus corrected them, but He did it expressly so they would have improved understanding in the future. Rather than simply telling them what they should have already understood, He used pointed questions to get their attention and direct them to what they were missing. Engaging them in this manner got their attention and made it more likely they would retain the necessary lesson.

Live It

  • Recognize the importance of mind-sets and how thinking impacts action.
  • Address incorrect thoughts with the same passion as incorrect actions.
  • Evaluate the level of understanding that should be expected.
  • If the person is relatively new to the responsibilities, point out the differences between correct and incorrect thinking.
  • If the person is growing in knowledge and ability, use open questions (for example, beginning with "what if" and "when") to direct the person's thinking toward areas of needed change.
  • If the person has had adequate time and support to understand, ask pointed questions to get attention and indicate areas needing correction.
  • Focus on the person's long-term learning and overall success as your primary goals.

See It

One army unit was conducting a "paper exercise"—which involves detailed plans but no actual troops in the field. As each group submitted their plans, one of the headquarters leaders discovered a plan destined for failure. He started to alert the group to their error, but the colonel stopped him. "We'll shoot their helicopters down, and they will learn. Let them make this mistake when it doesn't cost any lives." The other leader had an incorrect mind-set about the paper exercises and what they were designed to do. Ensuring he understood the purpose of these exercises and handled them correctly would be vital to the overall effectiveness, and safety, of the unit in live combat.

Consider the Impact of a Public Correction

This New Testament passage comes from a letter Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy. In it, Paul gives the young man instructions for church leadership.

Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.—1 Timothy 5:20

In general, leaders should talk to people one-on-one to discuss performance shortfalls. However, this passage refers to the motivational value of "learning another's lesson." If a problem is out in the open, it may be appropriate to correct publicly to ensure others are warned from the same path. If intentions were good and the person is noticeably aware of their shortfall, a private or mild open correction may be sufficient. Be sure to think beyond the immediate needs to the resulting impact on others before deciding the best course of action.

Live It

  • Realize that people generally know the performance of others.
  • Evaluate whether the performance failure was due to inexperience, honest mistakes, or if the person knew better and is capable of more.
  • Choose the best way to address the situation, balancing the needs to correct the individual and send a clear message about your expectations.
  • Give a private, mild correction if the person is aware and sorry for his or her failure.
  • Give a private correction followed by a broader message about your expectations if others may be inclined to make the same mistake.
  • Give an open correction if the failure was open and serious.

See It

One organization found itself in the awkward place of having to try again to implement changes to its IT processes and procedures. Several previous attempts had failed, yet the improvements were necessary. When the new attempt was announced, many openly scoffed, but most people simply ignored the message. To get attention, the project team implemented an open measurement system. The key requirements were identified along with expected standards and timing for completion. Project members met regularly with leaders of the organization to go over their group's performance against expectations, and all were repeatedly alerted that results would be openly published in an upcoming meeting. The meeting came and went, and the inadequate performance of several groups was known to all—as was the superior performance of others. By the next meeting, all results were at or above expectations, and soon the effort was well on its way to success.

Ensure Negative Consequences Are Firm

Moses is the person speaking to God in this passage. This episode happened shortly before his death. Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land due to a serious sin he committed. (See Numbers 20:2-13.)

Then I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying: "O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand, for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do anything like Your works and Your mighty deeds? I pray, let me cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, those pleasant mountains, and Lebanon." But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not listen to me. So the Lord said to me: "Enough of that! Speak no more to Me of this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah, and lift your eyes toward the west, the north, the south, and the east; behold it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. But command Joshua, and encourage him and strengthen him; for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you will see." —Deuteronomy 3:23-28

It is important to hold fast to decisions where you have applied negative consequences—especially when strong messages or principles are at stake. Moses had failed to follow God fully in one respect—striking the rock rather than speaking to it as He had commanded. God required complete obedience from Moses to relay the proper message to His people, so His punishment was severe and irrevocable.

Before his death, Moses reminded the people of his own situation and the effects of obedience and disobedience. (See Deuteronomy 4:1-40.) He was a credible source because he was suffering the effects of his own actions. People want equity in what happens to leaders and employees. If God had been lenient on Moses, His message would have been diluted—and worse, He would have shown more respect for Moses, which goes against His character. (See Acts 10:34.) God expects much from those who have been given much (Luke 12:48), and this should cause us to continually evaluate our motives and conduct.

Live It

  • Think carefully before applying negative consequences; don't make them so onerous you are tempted to change them in the future.
  • Realize the difference between changing your mind on a negative consequence and mitigating some of the negative implications of the consequence.
  • Allowing Moses to enter the Promised Land would have discounted the importance of being fully obedient.
  • Letting Moses see the Promised Land helped to mitigate the negative impact to some extent, yet continued to reinforce the importance of obedience.
  • More than fourteen hundred years later, God fulfilled Moses's dream by allowing him to return to Earth and enter the Promised Land to meet with Elijah and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. (See Matthew 17:1-3.)
  • Allow people to speak with you about the situation because it will enable you to reinforce your expectations and keep communications flowing to help repair any damaged relationships.
  • Resist the temptation to let appeals go on for too long and give false hopes of a change in your decision.
  • Reinforce your expectations (for example, Moses was to support the transition of leadership to Joshua) because it is easy for people to be distracted or disheartened while enduring negative consequences.

See It

During her first year, a talented new employee hired out of graduate school had met or exceeded all of her performance goals. Halfway through her second year, however, she began struggling. Her performance was slipping quickly, and it appeared her attitude was behind it. Her supervisor needed to take action, so a probationary period was established. The two agreed to the specific performance goals she needed to meet to successfully complete the probation.

During the three-month probation, she failed to meet any of her goals. Her supervisor realized no amount of talent could make up for lack of heart, so he reluctantly terminated her employment. He needed to show to the employee, and the organization, that performance was critical. He also wanted to show compassion for the employee involved, so he paid for career counseling and then helped her land a coveted job with another international corporation. In addition, he carefully identified how he could improve his department's screening process for evaluating all future potential employees.


As a leader, you will never get away from the need to correct people. The Bible provides a number of examples to help you take the needed action with confidence, knowing you are applying ancient wisdom and techniques that work.

Excerpted from Lead & Succeed by Sara J. Moulton Reger (Excel Books, 2009). Copyright 2009 by Sara J. Moulton Reger. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Sara J. Moulton Reger helps Fortune 500 companies achieve their business objectives. Sara hasbeen a management consultant since 1988, specializing in organizational change, culture transformation, governance, and leadership, both at IBM and other leading consulting firms. Currently, she is a transformation program executive leading various global initiatives at IBM. Sara has published on a variety of topics, including business culture, business complexity, governance, organizational change management, communication, risk management, and financial management. She is the author of Can Two Rights Make a Wrong? Insights from IBM's Tangible Culture Approach (IBM Press, 2006).


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