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Contructive Criticism



 “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Wrong, wrong, wrong. When it comes to developing and sustaining human relationships, words can destroy, devastate, and ravage the connection. Bones will heal but your words can damage an individual’s ego, their self image, their feelings of loyalty to a you or your company, and the trust that must exist between people who work together.  Don’t put in time and effort building a team, reinforcing hard work and initiative, and humanistic leadership, then blow it by an unconscious or ill conceived word.


Words can hit the heart, injure the soul and stay in the brain forever.  When the words come from a person in power, the impact is increased dramatically. The impact of poorly delivered negative feedback can range from hurt feelings to a full blown crisis of confidence.  The cumulative effect of poorly delivered feedback destroys relationships, lowers morale, reduces effort, halts initiative, disillusions employees, increases turnover and generally ticks people off.


I am not saying that the best course of action is to eliminate negative feedback and suspend the use of criticism in today’s workplace.  Far from it. Part of leadership is to control the conduct of a disruptive, unproductive, or uncooperative member of the work group. When you need to amend a person’s behavior, correct mistakes, channel someone’s efforts into more positive activities, or develop an individual’s skills, action must be taken so that the counterproductive behavior of the employee will not negatively impact on the successful completion of goals and/or the morale of the other, more cooperative members


While constructive criticism may initially look like an oxymoron, it is not. There are some very inflexible rules for pulling it off.


The delivery must be private and confidential. You want to retain the professional relationship you have with the individual so you must preserve their ego. In order for this to happen, you need to save his/her face. Never humiliate a person by pointing out their shortcomings in public.  You don’t need an audience. 


Be sure the recipient understands the work rules and job expectations. Sometimes is it a breakdown in communication or confusion about the expectations of the job that is the root of the behavioral problem.  If this is the case, then retraining, re-orientation and a discussion of the rules and standards may be the only feedback necessary. (If you have every been stopped by a police officer, you know that one of the first questions they ask is, “Do you know what the speed limit is here?”  Can’t get out of it when you should have known better. )


Criticize the behavior, not the person. Don’t tell a person that there is something wrong with him/her.  First of all, they may believe it. When that happens, you will have a passive, timid, insecure employee who will be difficult to engage in the future.  On the other hand, you may trigger defense mechanisms as their egos fight your conclusion with excuses, alibis, denial or anger.  You need to get through to the individual and this means you have to leave the ego intact and concentrate on the behaviors you want changed, discontinued or modified. 


Use non-intimidating language and nonverbal messages. Keep your tone calm and civil.  Give the person your consideration.  Be direct, but use tact.  Don’t point, pound the desk, frown disapprovingly, or make sarcastic remarks.  You want to be serious, so the person doesn’t think you’re kidding around, but you don’t want them to build a defensive wall before you start the conversation. Have a professional demeanor and engage in mature conversation.


Give the person the opportunity to be involved in the problem identification and solution. Ask the person what they think and how they feel throughout the conversation.  People can be their own critic and you can facilitate their journey to a solution.  This is a powerful technique is used in counseling and can be very effective when dealing with behavior that needs modification.


Be forward looking...establish a constructive plan of action for improvement. Don’t simply criticize the behavior and think this will lead to the desired performance.  Explicitly discuss a future plan of action and a develop a performance improvement strategy.  This may include such things as additional training or an assignment of a mentor. 


Discuss specific consequences. Don’t leave a person mystified with a comment like “Shape up or Ship out.”  Communicate clear expectations and make the consequences of their behavior explicit and time-bound.  Establish deadlines and a schedule for follow-up.


Follow through! The idea of delivering constructive criticism is to modify a person’s behavior.  You need to check on the individual to be sure the message got through.  Also, if the consequences have been clearly delineated, it is important to take action on your agreement.