When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse make the house or office one of their regular racetracks, it's time to call in positive reinforcements.

These horsemen - criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling - run riot in failing relationships, says American psychiatrist John Gottman. At work, these tendencies can affect productivity.

Coach Michelle Dalley sees many workplaces that would benefit from improving how feedback is delivered.

"Corrective feedback isn't about telling people off. It's about letting somebody know they have gone off track," Dalley says. "When we get a sense of wanting to tell someone off, a whole lot of emotions go with that and create a climate."


When people feel under threat, the brain becomes flooded with chemicals. "Our high cognitive-thinking ability is diminished because the energy is going out to our extremities," Dalley says. "We can't consciously focus on doing something different."

The best way for managers to get the behaviour they want is by building strong relationships and giving praise: "It's far more effective than giving corrective feedback."

Praise generates a pleasurable dopamine response and people will work to experience more. Four positive comments to an employee will likely make it easier for them to receive one corrective feedback. And "take the emotion out of the conversation", she says.

Dalley coaches clients on how to regulate their emotions - perhaps by deep breathing or talking to someone before addressing the problem.

She suggests first asking open questions to elicit an "a-ha!" of recognition. Then the person will take ownership, reflect and self-correct. If this doesn't happen, ask permission to say what you have observed. When the person says yes, they are allowing themselves to hear the feedback. "The important thing is to be brief and objective in how you express what you want changed ... Then quickly move to a solutions focus."

Neuro-leadership specialist David Rock has proposed a model called Scarf (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) to understanding what makes employees feel threatened by corrective feedback.

Employees will behave defensively if they feel their status is diminished, their job is at risk, they have no say in the feedback process, are not cared about or are treated unfairly.

He says managers need to be better trained in giving feedback to make the exercise worth the time and money organisations invest in them.