Research on Telling Others What to Improve

© 2003 by Barry Sweeny


When a supervisor tells an employee what they should do to improve, some very interesting phenomena happen. People sometimes become defensive, as if they are saying, “What’s the matter with what I am already doing!”  When that happens, they begin to erect defensive ‘walls’ and become less approachable, less open to growth, and less open to the support of those who MAY KNOW BETTER than themselves what they need to do.

Mentors sometimes see this phenomena in the form of offering advice and suggestions which their protege clearly NEEDS to follow, but which the protege chooses to ignore. When that happens, mentors need more effective strategies, such as those the author teaches in his mentor trainings.

Surprisingly, the author has found that the vast majority of new mentors do NOT expect this resistance to happen, and they themselves RESIST learning the effective strategies mentors must know to counter this problem when it happens. Amazing!

That is one reason why the author uses the following research in his mentor trainings. Another is that mentors are likely to have an even LOWER impact than the following data show supervisors have, because the mentors do not have the positional authority of a supervisor. On the other hand, mentors who are careful to be non-judgmental in offering advice WILL have better success than the following research demonstrates.

The choice of your impact as a mentor rests on how you do what you do.


Note:This research shows what happens when a supervisor (or anyone else?):

  • OBSERVES you at work;
  • Sees a PATTERN of behavior that is not useful or acceptable;
  • BECOMES COMMITTED to making the person change this pattern;
  • DECIDES HOW the person’s practice needs to be changed;
  • TELLS the person what the supervisor’s decision is and what they are expected to do to improve.

When that was the model of providing “feed back”, here is what happened. How effective was the supervision effort?


RESEARCH ON THE IMPACT OF SUPERVISOR DIRECTION(mostly 1st and 2nd year employees)By Carl Glickman, University of Georgia

25 %   Took the supervisor’s suggestion and tried to do it(but did not necessarily succeed)

18 %   Did the OPPOSITE of the supervisor’s suggestions

57 %   Did NOTHING different at all.


Weird, huh? These data are BAD news!   And yet anyone who has ever worked and had this experience knows at least 3 to 5 reasons why this happens:

  • Lack of credibility
    • “Why does she think she knows SO much?!”, or…
    • “I wonder when the last time was that SHE was in a real job like mine?!”
  • Lack of trust – “Who IS this person, and why should I take their advice?”
  • Lack in knowing HOW to use the advice – “I’d already be doing what she suggested IF I knew how!”
  • Lack of understanding – “How do her ideas fit with what I learned in college? It makes no sense to me.”
  • A prior decision that’s unknown to the advice giver – “I’m outa here in 2 more months anyway, so, forget it.”
  • Etc.

The point, however, is “How can Mentors ensure that they are MUCH more effective than these data suggest? if YOU are a mentor, would yoy be satisfied with your protege doing what you suggest is needed only 25% of the time?

The advice on how to be much more effective than that rests on not just telling your protege what they need to do. The specific details of that advice (should you choose to take it from this mentor) is elsewhere on this web site. Start with Guidelines for Appropriate Mentor Feed Back.)

Then check out the page When is it OK for Mentors To Give Advice?