One of the primary keys to successful leadership and management remains delivering criticism in a manner that leaves employees feeling motivated rather than deflated. Part of delivering criticism effectively lies in recognizing each employee’s preferred communication style. Some individuals like direct, to-the-point communication, while others need to be handled delicately. Beyond recognizing and respecting these differences in communication styles, business leaders should keep a number of other factors in mind as they deliver feedback to employees. The following tips can help leaders critique their employees without sapping their morale.
1. Provide specific feedback, including the exact changes desired.
When employees do not deliver expected results, the reason may relate to a basic misunderstanding of what is desired. When delivering criticism as a leader, you need to be explicit about the change that you want to see. While the change could be very obvious to you, you should not assume that the employee understands what was done wrong and what needs to be done in the future.
To get real results, leaders need to explain why the criticism is being delivered and make specific, concrete suggestions for the future. Perhaps you address your employees, telling them that their memos are sloppy and future ones need to be tightened. Though you have an idea of what you want, this feedback does not convey your expectation. You need to be specific about what you want. A better approach is to ask employees to write memos that have key points underlined and do not exceed half a page. This criticism should be accompanied by what makes sloppy memos ineffective.
2. Avoid bookending the criticism with compliments.
Many managers approach criticism by first offering a compliment, then the negative feedback, and finally another compliment. This structure tries to keep the employee from walking away with hurt feelings, but in the real world it sends mixed signals. Employees often walk away from these encounters doubting the sincerity of the compliments or the seriousness of the criticism. While it is important to give good feedback and praise when employees are doing a great job, these conversations should be separate from the conversations designed to deliver constructive feedback. At the same time, it is important to remain mindful of self-esteem while delivering criticism.
3. Think carefully about the timing of feedback.
Most business leaders move to offer criticism immediately after they notice a problem. This approach works some of the time, but other times it will not achieve the desired results. Part of the problem with immediate feedback is that it often comes across as more punitive than supportive. The other half of the issue is that employees typically do not have any immediate means to do better.
A better approach is to give feedback shortly before the employee will face the same task again. With this approach, you can frame the criticism as advice, and the employee can immediately implement it. This approach can prove difficult, because it involves thinking about the best time to deliver feedback, and you risk losing the opportunity to do so. When done correctly, however, it often achieves lasting results.
4. Partner with employees for solutions.
Even if you have an idea of how to fix a problem, it is typically more effective to collaborate with your employees on a solution. This approach can lead to surprising results if they have a truly creative idea, and other times it involves gently nudging them toward the desired solution. In either case, the collaboration helps employees understand exactly what the problem is and makes them think critically about a solution. In addition, people tend to feel more connected to solutions that they propose themselves.
This sort of partnership also helps avoid blaming, which is not constructive. For example, perhaps an employee is consistently late turning in assignments. When confronted, the employee blames the problem on another department, saying that they never receive critical information on time. Instead of passing the blame to this other department, it is more constructive to ask, “What can we do to make sure that the information from the other department comes in on time?”
5. Focus on one issue at a time.
After delivering criticism, you may feel like a weight has been lifted from your chest, which can encourage you to continue giving feedback. However, giving feedback on multiple issues at once can overload your employee with information while also diminishing the importance of each individual point. You should avoid the urge to vent when you feel frustrated, as it can quickly kill an employee’s enthusiasm and confidence, even if the points are valid. Employees may also come to resent you for overloading them with criticisms because it undermines any sense of trust between you. By concentrating on one problem at a time and offering concise action points, you can achieve lasting change that empowers, not demoralizes, your staff.