How to Correct a Coworker without Sounding Like a Jerk

Ever tried to correct someone, only for them to ignore or get mad at you? Yeah, it’s never a pleasant experience — especially when you have to see that person eight hours a day, five days a week.

Sometimes, it’s better to let the mistake slide. For example, if your coworker mispronounced the CEO’s name in one breath, and correctly pronounced it the next, the safest option is to keep quiet. But if that coworker rattles off 2019 numbers for a 2020 report in a company-wide meeting, someone needs to step in.

There’s a trick to it, though. You have to do it in such a way that your coworker will not only become aware of their mistake, but also be grateful to you — rather than resentful — for bringing it up. To do that, here are some tips to follow.

1. Consider Your Motivations

Why do you want to call out your coworker? Is it because you know their mistake will have serious repercussions? Or is it because you just want to prove how smart and superior you are to them?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your intentions can colour how your correction comes across. If you’re not sure about your motivations, you might want to let someone else talk to your coworker instead. It might feel frustrating to not do anything on your own, but sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to do something that might make things worse for everyone involved.

2. Consider Your Relationship

If you’re practically BFFs with your coworker, you may already know what — and what not — to say to them. But if you’ve barely interacted before, and you don’t know how they normally react to criticism, tread carefully. For all you know, that coworker might be a highly sensitive person who takes everything to heart.

3. Break it to Them Privately

No matter how good your intentions are, it’s never a good idea to correct someone in front of an audience. Not only is that embarrassing for them, but it also gives them reason to think you have less-than-noble intentions for pointing out their mistake. Approach your coworker in private and tell them it’s important that the two of you talk.

4. Use the Feedback Approach that Works

You might be familiar with the “sandwich approach,” where you start with positive feedback, segue into negative feedback and wrap up with another piece of positive feedback. If you’re offering the correction via email, the sandwich approach works well because it’s easier to misinterpret the tone of a message sent online.

However, if your coworker has received the sandwich treatment one too many times, they might already know what’s coming, and they may resent you for not being more straightforward with them. In that case, you can try the transparent approach, where you get down to business right off the bat: “I wanted to talk to you because I had concerns about the numbers presented in the meeting earlier.” Follow up with some genuine positive feedback to balance it out.

5. Focus on the Mistake, Not the Person

Keep in mind that 55 percent of people identify with what they do. That means most of them are conditioned to think that if they do something wrong, it must be because there’s something wrong with them as people.

The key is to create a psychological distance between their actions and their perceptions of their self-worth. For example, instead of saying, “You mixed up the numbers for 2014 and 2015,” rephrase it as, “I noticed the numbers for 2014 and 2015 were switched.” By doing this, you’re being honest about their mistake without calling their competence into question.

6. Ask Questions

As James Chartrand writes in “How to Avoid Harsh-Sounding Emails,” questions can make the difference between sounding helpful and sounding bossy. When you follow-up your concern with something like, “Would you please look at the numbers again?,” you seem friendlier compared to, “Take a look at the numbers again, please.”

Even when you ended that last one with “please,” it still comes across as pushy and demanding, doesn’t it?

7. Provide Reasons for Your Corrections

In a 1978 experiment, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer demonstrated the power of the word “because.” When researchers tried to get ahead in line by saying, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” they got people to comply 60 percent of the time.

But when they added a reason for the action, like “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” the rate of compliance jumped to 94 percent! Even when the reason seemed superfluous, like “May I use the Xerox machine, because I need to make copies,” the degree of compliance still hovered at 93 percent.

The takeaway here is to help your coworker understand why the correction was necessary. Again, be careful not to suggest that incompetence is the issue: “We need to correct these numbers by the next meeting, because they might create confusion regarding our strategy.”

8. Offer Solutions

Did you notice how the word “we” was used, instead of “you” in the last question? By using “we,” you’re letting your coworker know that, despite their mistake, you’re not leaving them in the lurch. The last thing your coworker needs is to realise they’re going about it alone, so make them feel like they’re still a valuable part of the team despite the oversight.

Also, don’t be afraid to give suggestions, but always make it clear you’re open to their ideas, too. For example, you can say: “I think we can hold another meeting about this at 3 o’ clock today. What you do think?”

9. Watch Your Tone and Your Body Language

As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Even if your words are good, the harsh way you deliver them, plus standoffish body language, won’t go unnoticed by your coworker. Unless you’re a naturally easygoing and open person, it might help to brush up on your nonverbal communication skills.

10. Prepare for the Worst Case Scenario

Sometimes, even the best intentions can get misinterpreted. If you’ve done your best to break it as gently, tactfully and honestly as you can, and they still decide to treat you as though you’re one of the Four Horsemen, just leave them be. Once you’ve thrown the ball into their court, what they do with the ball is no longer your concern.

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum recently graduated from Penn State with degrees in Marketing and PR. Now, she's a freelance writer and career blogger sharing advice on navigating the work world and achieving happiness and success in your career. You can find her tweeting on her coffee breaks @SarahLandrum