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Opinion: What employees wish managers knew about criticism

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Imagine this: A room full of managers at their company’s annual meeting are excited about beginning the conference.

The leader takes the microphone and after a few remarks scolds the managers as a group for poor behavior at last year’s meeting. He criticizes them, as if everyone’s guilty, for not wearing the themed T-shirts last year, and for partying too late into the evening.

You can imagine what happened next. The way he reprimanded them yanked the excitement right out of the room.

Some leaders are quick to be critical because they feel empowered over people when they criticize. Effective leaders, however, realize the goal of criticism is to help people get better.

Most people want to do a good job and they want to know when their efforts fall short of expectations. Ultimately, they want their bosses to provide feedback in a constructive way.

Expressing criticism that actually helps employees improve isn’t something that very many managers are comfortable doing. Here are seven ways to do it well.

1. Avoid storing up criticism. At a client’s leadership workshop, a manager told me about working for a previous employer. Her boss would store up his criticism and unload it at her annual performance review. Obviously, she couldn’t make any improvements during the year because he wouldn’t discuss it. The frustration eventually made her quit. Handle criticism promptly, so people can address it.

2. Never wish the problem would just go away. It’s not realistic to wait for employees to miraculously fix themselves. Performance problems rarely go away without help. What’s more, waiting to take action makes it harder to address with the employee later, and other employees won’t appreciate the double standard. Nipping the issue in the bud is better than hoping for the best.

3. Create sufficient accountability. Seldom, if ever, is accountability so obvious to employees that it doesn’t have to be explicitly clarified. I’ve had coaching clients that struggled to lead their team because accountability was clear to them but not to their people. To give substance to accountability, you need to be clear about your expectations and clear about the consequences.

4. Arrange for follow-up. The best managers address a performance issue, then regularly follow up to verify change is occurring. Struggling managers tend to wait until they hear the situation isn’t fixed, and then they deal with the employee. Follow up should happen as frequently as the situation merits.

5. Don’t jump to conclusions. One leader I coached had a problem. He’d say things to employees like, “It’s obvious you don’t care.” Most employees do care about their work, and mistakes don’t necessarily signal a lack of caring or commitment. People prefer facts to assumptions from their bosses. Making assumptions about behavior can create friction and worsen the issue.

6. Do the mirror test before you criticize. A few years ago, a small-business owner told me that he no longer believed his seasoned employee could perform. However, I discovered the owner’s ineffective communication style was partway to blame for the employee’s performance. Before you give feedback, first look at your own part in the problem.

7. Provide a solution. Giving performance feedback isn’t the time to be iffy or ambiguous. Most people need specific examples to make changes. Give them a roadmap, pair them up with a mentor and get them the necessary resources to be successful. The best feedback provides a complete cycle starting with identifying the problem, providing relevant examples and a workable solution.

People want positive and constructive feedback to help them increase their success. Good leaders work at giving balanced, useful feedback.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and MarkHolmesGroup.com. He can be reached at mark@markholmesgroup.com.

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