How can I do a better job of delivering criticism?

by Sam on July 22, 2009

Analysis: When you open your mouth to remedy performance, your words will hold either more power than sting or more sting than power. Your words contain power when the recipient is encouraged to engage in the new behavior you are asking for. They possess sting when the receiver feels attacked, invalidated, or singled out.

The prescriptions below help you maximize the power and minimize the sting. Notice that I say minimize the sting, not eliminate it. You know yourself that the kindest rebuke you ever received hurt, even if just a little. So expect an initially self-protective response to even the most constructively offered criticism. You may have to wait a while for the sting to subside and the power to kick in. If the power never kicks in one of two situations exists: either you’ve encountered a highly sensitive person who’ll be stung by most any attempt at correction or you need to revisit the advice below, apologize for your error, and try again.

Answer: These six essential steps will turn you into a deliverer of constructive, power-producing criticism.

1.   Do it in private! Whenever I ask a group of employees if they recall ever being criticized by their boss in public, a third to a half of the hands go up. When I ask how many believe they will ever forget that event, very few hands fall, even though some say they forgive the boss for that indiscretion. If there is an “unpardonable leadership sin” this is it.

2.   Avoid the pronoun “you.” If “you” is the first word out of your mouth, you’ll be the king (or queen) of sting. A better beginning pronoun is “I.” Here are three openers for an employee who submitted a sloppily prepared report. Try this I see opener: “I discovered seven typos in choosthe quarterly report.” Try this I feel opener: “I was disappointed to find typos in the quarterly report.” Try this I need opener. “I can’t present to my boss a quarterly report with seven typos.”

3.   Examine your heart before you open your mouth. You can’t mask what’s in your heart with cleverly chosen words. If you’re angry or in any negative emotional state, your tone and your body language will give you away and lead to sting. If that outcome is acceptable, go right ahead. But if you want a different (power) result, picture what you want that result to be. See it in that person’s face and hear it in that person’s response. Ask yourself, “Is how I’m feeling about this situation going to elicit that desired effect?” If not, get your heart right first. Take a walk, allow some time, or pray before you speak your mind.

4.   Ask a question. There are three reasons for the first words out of your mouth to be a question, not a statement. First, you may not have all the facts in the situation that a question could reveal. Second, a lead off question is one way to take off in the direction of power rather than sting. In the quarterly report example consider, “Is there something that would help me understand why there are seven typos in this quarterly report?” Third, if you lack authority in a situation–e.g., with a boss—the answer to your question often enables you to go where you were reluctant to start. For a boss who micromanages try, “What can I do to earn your trust?” and work with the answer you get. (The May 6 & 13, 2009 archives have more on the power of questions.

5.   Attack behavior, not attitude. As a leader, you’ll never encounter an attitude problem. Yes, you read that right! You’ll only encounter behavior problems. An attitude becomes a problem only when that attitude manifests itself in negative behavior. In fact, employee attitudes about anything—punctuality, performance, people, you name it—are none of your business. What is your business is their performance. So never think or say, “You need to change your attitude about _____.” Instead, insist on the behavior necessary for teamwork, for adherence to policy, for safety, for efficiency, for goal achievement, for fulfillment of stated expectations–for any required action.

6.   Apply the “John Wooden Rule.” John Wooden was arguably the most successful college basketball coach ever. From 1964 to 1975 he led his UCLA Bruins to an incredible ten NCAA Championships. Of the many ingredients to his coaching effectiveness, one was uncovered by educational physiologists given access to Bruin practices in order to study his leadership style. The researchers were taken aback by how Wooden criticized his players when he caught them in the act. If for example he witnessed a player dribbling improperly, he’d shout the player’s name. Then he would say something like, “Let me show you how we dribble at UCLA” or “Let me show you how you can dribble through five players and they’ll never touch the ball.” John Wooden was turning criticism opportunities into teaching moments. Sound like you?

Additionally: I’m a big fan of having at my fingertips (“liptips?”) a handful of scripts that are consistent with the principles above as well as other best criticism practices. In the heat of battle, I don’t always have the presence of mind to apply the principles well; it’s easier for me to rely on proven approaches. Pick a few from this list for your own use and add ones appropriate for the situations you typically face.

“Kim, I just observed an interaction with one of our customers that could have gone much better.”

“Jerry, I need to count on you to…”

“Joan, let me show you how to make that work.”

“Peter, it’s not like you to…”

“Sara, I feel let down by these results”

“Gino, help me understand why…”

“Jan, what’ll it take to keep this from happening again?”

Aphorism: Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend’s forehead. ~Japanese proverb

Approaching: Is there “coming attraction” on this list that you can’t wait for? Ask for a preview.

7/29: Who, me—a praise miser?

8/5: How can I use praise more effectively to motivate others?

8/12: Why do many performance appraisal systems fail to improve performance?

8/19: What role do manners and civility play in the workplace?

8/26: How can I wow the audience when I make a formal presentation?

9/2: What are some good ways to organize my thoughts for a presentation?

9/9: How do I best connect with my presentation audience?

9/16: How can I send the most powerful messages during a presentation?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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