Dear BDC: How Do I Give Constructive Criticism? / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

One of your employees is constantly falling short on expectations. How do you give constructive criticism without killing morale?

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Dear BDC,

Please help! I’m a small business owner, and like all other entrepreneurs, I wear many hats; one of them being the role of a manager who constantly tries to improve performance through positive and constructive feedback. A specific employee of mine, let’s call him Bill, has fallen off the performance path as of late. We’ve received multiple complaints from our clients about his lack of enthusiasm. A simple point of constructing criticism would do the trick, but I’m not the most sensitive person. How do I give constructive criticism to employees without killing morale?

The Criticized Criticizer

Dear Criticized Criticizer,

First things first: let’s talk about sensitivity. You have a business to run, so it’s understandable that you expect the best performance from each employee. But negative verbal feedback can lead to negative consequences, especially if he or she is prone to receiving constructive criticism in an unconstructive light.

If a performance review is done incorrectly, poorer work performance could ensue. Psychologists A. Kluger and A. Denisi, through a meta-analysis of 607 studies of performance evaluations, found that at least 30% of the performance reviews decreased employee performance afterwards. 

Add positivity to the conversation

So how do you constructively criticize Bill for his lack of expressed enthusiasm? First, think of Fred’s positive performance points and be sure to express those in the conversation. Why? Because research shows that employees are happiest when you’re not solely wagging you’re finger at them.

Research by academic Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada revealed that the most effective teams (in terms of financial performance, customer feedback and peer feedback) were the ones who received a high ration of positive to negative comments from their leadership team.

In fact, the highest performing employees received five positive comments to every one critique. Can you think of five optimistic things to say to Bill? Might be worth a shot.

Related Article: Dear BDC: How Do I Best Manage Expectations?

Be straight-forward and provide examples

Add positivity, but don’t beat around the bush. It would be misleading to fill a performance review with unabashed praise for the employee. No need to pump him up just to deflate him. In one sentence, express the problem behavior and provide specific examples to support your argument. For example, this could be exact feedback you received from clients or a tangible number to prove he’s underperforming compared to recent quarters.

Ask questions

Once you’ve laid out the hard part, be slow to blame his personality traits. Secondly, be slow to fire off phrases like, “You should’ve done it this way” or “Just try to be more like Susie”. Instead, ask questions to encourage self-evaluation such as, “What was your thought process behind approaching that situation in that manner,” or “How do you think we can work together to improve this issue?” Empower, don’t belittle.

Related Article: Are Employee Rewards Programs a Good or Bad Idea?

Listen, and then speak

Listen empathetically before firing off condescending suggestions. Express your appreciation to him for opening up and discussing this issue. Find a point of agreement so that you don’t double-diss him for offering poor suggestions. Then present your specific solutions. In his case, it might be a refresher course on your sales script. Or maybe you can motivate him by assigning more exciting projects.

Ultimately your goal is to boost Bill’s performance. You can’t do that by beating him to the ground with criticism. Be careful with your words Criticized Criticizer, and he’ll appreciate the feedback.

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