Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How to give criticism effectively, in 6 steps

Far too often I had this conversation with a department manager: "I am so frustrated with Robert (or Roberta). He never listens and never improves. I've had it."

"Have you had this conversation with Robert?" I would ask. The answer far too often was no.

Usually the manager was afraid that confronting the employee would make things worse. The employee might create a scene.

Frankly, a manager's failure to confront someone often leads to a poisonous atmosphere with ever worsening behavior and performance. Don't let things get out of hand. 

Here are some tips from my own experience mixed with ideas from the book "The One Minute Manager" by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson.

  1. When you see a mistake or unacceptable behavior, give your criticism immediately, calmly and privately. Do not wait until you have accumulated a whole sackful of examples so that you can feel justified. You are more likely to react in anger and the employee will remember only your emotion and not the message. Waiting to accumulate enough examples also means you have tolerated unacceptable work or behavior for too long.
  2. Never give criticism by email. It is too impersonal and creates misunderstandings. It is also cowardly. You need to have a face-to-face exchange for the person to understand the problem clearly. If a face-to-face meeting is impossible, try a video phone call. The next option is by telephone -- and NOT by voice mail.
  3. Be specific. The goal is to change a practice or habit, and the employee  should understand precisely what the problem is.
  4. Say what you think of the problem and its implications for the organization and work environment.
  5. Leave the person in silence for a minute. If he or she wants to explain, listen well.
  6. Shake the person's hand and say how much you appreciate him or her. Remember that this is the end of the story. Don't repeatedly bring up the particular event or issue.

This practice emphasizes the values ​​and  standards of the organization. It is also more fair than the practice of waiting until the annual review to bring up problems. 

In the long run, giving your people critical feedback regularly will save you time. It will prevent you from having to correct the same problems or put out the same fires over and over. It will also establish you as an effective leader and earn the respect of your employees.

I think giving timely criticism is good for morale. Employees know what the expectations are, what their role is and their importance in the company. If employees do not receive any feedback from the boss, they might conclude that it does not matter to anyone whether they do a good job or not. 

Three useful phrases

I have used these in critiques. Just say them and be silent. Wait for the employee to respond.

  • This behavior is not acceptable in our organization.
  • This work does not meet our standards.
  • Your goal every day, Robert, is for everyone here to say, "Robert is a pleasure to work with."

Related: How to give praise effectively. 

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