How to Effectively Give Constructive Criticism

Providing constructive criticism to an employee may not make them happy, but it can improve the individual and the company.

Honey is bound to catch more employees than vinegar. A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected. This saying has a level of truth when it comes to the business world. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of examples of corporations that don't follow this belief. Let's call her Joan. She's a secretary at a Los Angeles digital media company and, frankly, she's a problem. "My workers are complaining to me," relates Kim, Joan's boss and the content manager of the company. "They don't want to ask her to do their typing, but that's Joan's job—distributing important documents and sending emails in and out of the office. Even paperwork is backlogged. The department is in chaos." 

What exactly is Joan's problem? "She's great with the rest of her work, but she can't spell," says Kim. "Nothing she touches has fewer than 10 errors." This situation may sound simple to remedy, but criticism is hardly ever easy. "I mean, what would you say to Joan?" asks Kim. The dilemma is not unusual, and neither is Kim's reluctance to proceed. "In the business world, we dislike criticism so much we put off doing it and even avoid talking about it, using words like 'feedback' instead," says Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, a corporate trainer and author of The Critical Edge. "But the fact is, a big part of every manager's job is criticizing staff. It's essential to producing quality work. Criticism just may be the crucial management skill. You won’t succeed if you're not skilled at it."

The trouble is, few of us are natural critics—by Weisinger's estimate, perhaps two in 10 managers are effective without first receiving training, meaning that 80 percent of us need help. Weisinger has good and bad news in that regard: "Criticism is a very learnable skill. Trouble is, most managers don't ever learn how to do it."But the trouble is not just hesitancy in criticizing; there is also the opposite extreme, as in Hank's case. Newly promoted into a manager slot with a Houston tech company, Hank had spent years waiting for this opportunity, and so he immediately busied himself cracking the whip. His underlings' work was routinely returned to them for massive revisions and, invariably, there was Hank's evaluation at the top of page one: "Terrible!" Within six months, his entire staff had resigned. Within a year, Hank himself was demoted. As consultant and author of How to Manage Your Boss, Christopher Hegarty observes, "Destructive criticism benefits nobody. Unfortunately, when most of us think of criticism, what we come up with is negativity."

Criticism to be Constructive

Isn't that what criticism is—fault­ finding? In a sense, yes, but as one communications trainer observes, "We often forget that the main purpose of criticizing is not to be negative but to be constructive to fix something." Here, of course, is exactly where Hank's criticism went astray. His sweeping rejections stung his staff but provided zero guidance on how to get the job done better. Worse still, when criticism is given destructively, chances are near nil that employees will make the necessary course corrections: "Unless you give them the reinforcement that they're capable of fixing it, most people won't be able to get past the negative 'you screwed up' message to listen to you and try to do better."

"To learn to effectively criticize, we have to put aside our preconceptions and take a wholly new approach," says Weisinger. He starts our re-thinking with the promise that, when delivered properly, "Criticism helps us do our jobs better. It's an opportunity to learn, to grow; it's useful information." And none of this means you have to grin and suffer your subordinates' every miscue. The cure is what Weisinger calls productive— "which involves change, progress"—criticism. "Constructive criticism," he says, "is a cliché, but productive criticism will get the changes you need." A necessary first step toward mastering this speaking-up technique is to answer this question: What is the reason for my criticism? Unless there's a constructive goal, say nothing. With Joan's poor spelling, the department's work is suffering and improvements in that area stand to benefit everybody, Joan included. But if your upset is purely personal, be quiet. If Tom wears tennis shoes with a business suit and the clash of styles grates on you, say nothing. If sales have been lost because of that idiosyncratic dress, however, criticism is in order because knowing this will help him just as it benefits the company as a whole.

Have a Plan

That established, Weisinger urges that we "plan our criticism in advance and figure out how to say it so that the person's receptivity to it is maximized. The key is to criticize others in a way that lets them use the information you've communicated to their own benefit." Do this planning thoroughly before you actually let fly with a double-barreled dose of criticism, Weisinger cautions, since "in the heat of the moment we'll revert to our old, unproductive styles unless we've rehearsed the new techniques in advance and in detail." But hold your tongue. There remains more to master before launching into criticism that works. For starters, says a Los Angeles motivational speaker, a building block skill is "learning the difference between assertive communications and accusation. An assertive statement doesn't contain any blame; it's ‘I'm unhappy when you do that.’ Blame is, ‘You make me mad.’ Stick with assertive messages, and we'll improve the effectiveness of our communications considerably." This may seem like a small distinction, but it is not to the listener. An assertive communication sticks to the facts while an accusation adds a destructive fillip. "When I blame you, you'll get defensive and want to fight back." An employee who's defensive won't really hear the criticism—he's too busy preparing his rebuttal or a counterattack.

Timing is Everything

Even an ideally constructed assertive message will fail if the timing is wrong, however, and so one psychologist ticks off another pre­ requisite: "Pick the right time and place. Don't criticize a subordinate in a spur-of-the-moment meeting. Few people take well to that." A bustling office corridor is rarely the right place, and the right time isn't the day he's heard an emergency project has come up, and he'll be spending weekends in the office for the next month. Instead, you'll want a private spot; and make it his office, not yours. "There's something intimidating about being summoned to the boss's office. That alone can put people in a defensive posture. If you can do it in his office, that's preferable. But wherever you pick, make sure it's private. If other ears are around, it's that much harder to hear negatives."

As for timing, the basic rule is, don't pick a time when the other person is under exceptional stress—a rule that ex­tends in turn to the critic, too. If you've just been mercilessly chewed out by your boss, now's not the time for you to lay into one of your staff. Let tempers cool first. With this foundation laid, Weisinger provides specific rules to follow in crafting effective criticism: "Start by acknowledging that your criticism is subjective by saying 'In my opinion' or 'I believe.' Without blaming the other person, state the problem and give a solution. And don't just fault­ find—in other words, outline the steps you want taken and also tell the recipient what benefit is involved for him in taking these steps."

Approaching the Issue

In Kim's case, for instance, she might take a deep breath and tell Joan that there have been complaints about her spelling, and the department's work is suffering. "Appearances and first impressions count," the manager could say, "and when documents go out with typos, the company isn’t putting a presentable foot forward." Kim might go on to suggest a book on spelling and offer to provide a computerized spell­ checking program. Mission accomplished? Not quite. First, there's the matter of telling Joan the benefit for her in buffing up her typing. This is where many managers falter, but Hegarty pro­vides a tip: "Just about all of us really want to do good work." So here, Kim could point out that, just as the department will benefit, snazzier typing will enhance Joan's chances of prospering. "Your typing will go much faster," Kim could say, "once you've mastered spelling. There'd be less retyping, and you’d have more time to do the tasks you prefer."

And remember that criticism isn't all talk. Much of what's involved in effective criticism hinges on honestly listening to a subordinate's side of the story, and that's not always easy. "Many bosses have forgotten how to listen to their staff. They talk at, not with, them," says Hegarty. "But if a manager learns to listen, employees frequently will tell us what they need to do their jobs better." Then, too, when there's been a goof, encouraging the subordinate to tell his view of what happened "will reduce defensiveness, clarify the situation, and provide both parties with an opportunity to think the problem through," says one New York-based consultant.

Learn to Listen

But deciding to listen is one thing. Actually doing it is harder. To really hear what people are saying, particularly when they're saying things we may not want to hear, takes work. For more effective listening techniques, try nodding the head, restating the subordinate's statement in your own words, and encouraging more information through silence. These behaviors invite your subordinate to open up and reassure him you are interested in and sensitive to his viewpoint. Weisinger gives a last, crucial phase to the process of constructive criticism: "Check the employee's comprehension of the criticism by asking him to sum up in his own words and then get a commitment on the employee's part to take action. That's essential, because the point of productive criticism is changed for the better. Afterward, make sure you follow up. Set a deadline for change, where that's appropriate, and in every case continue to check in and offer help where required to meet a goal."

First Time May Not be a Charm

Unfortunately, productive criticism isn't sure-fire, and in the aftermath, sometimes nothing changes. If a typist's spelling remains off the mark or the junior executive persists in showing up for key sales presentations wearing sneakers, perhaps the employee has merely forgotten your conversation or maybe it never registered in the first place. Either way, another dose of criticism is called for. "The second time around, reiterate the agreement you thought you'd reached and ask what the obstacles to change have been," says Weisinger. If there are legitimate road­ blocks, offer to pitch in to help remove them. On the other hand, if the employee is just resisting change, this second go around underlines your determination to get improvements. And don't forget what Hank never learned: Honey is bound to catch more employees than vinegar. In fact, according to Cleveland State professor Hanoch McCarty, praise is an essential prerequisite to effective criticism. "When a manager praises employees it creates what I call a 'social bank account' that makes it much easier to deliver negative feed­ back and criticism," says McCarty. "Positive statements make deposits in the account. Negatives are withdrawals. And with employees, as with checking accounts, you can only make withdrawals after you've built up a balance."

Continues McCarty: "Most managers have so little contact with subordinates that when they make an evaluative comment, it looms as large as the Statue of Liberty. Negative comments will stand out all alone if the supervisor hasn't been talking regularly with his staff. Plus, if there are enough positives prior to the negative, the employee will be highly motivated to make corrections because the steady flow of positives has momentarily ceased and they have a strong desire to resume that flow. We know this from experimental psychology." Meanwhile, Weisinger says, "If you take as your goal the improvement and development of employees—and, ultimately, that's a big portion of every manager's job description—the right techniques for achieving change will invariably follow. Approach criticism with the wrong attitude, and it's a virtual certainty that nothing good will come of it. Take on this positive outlook, however, and it's just as certain that positive results will follow."

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How to Effectively Give Constructive Criticism