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In Praise of Criticism

I’ve stumbled over a fine line in human nature that many other leaders trip over as well: Being critical and offering criticism are two distinct acts. Most people can criticize freely — as long as they aren’t facing the person under scrutiny. Bad-mouthing a Survivor cast member is one thing. Looking a colleague in the eye and spelling out her limitations is another one entirely. Yet one of a manager’s most important duties is pointing out unsatisfactory or counterproductive behavior. It’s not easy, but it is essential.

I’ve stumbled over a fine line in human nature that many other leaders trip over as well: Being critical and offering criticism are two distinct acts. Most people can criticize freely — as long as they aren’t facing the person under scrutiny. Bad-mouthing a Survivor cast member is one thing. Looking a colleague in the eye and spelling out her limitations is another one entirely. Yet one of a manager’s most important duties is pointing out unsatisfactory or counterproductive behavior. It’s not easy, but it is essential. In this column, I’ll examine the factors that make giving criticism so hard, and explore techniques for overcoming those roadblocks.

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The Emotion Equation

If an employee’s performance problem stems from a lack of understanding rather than a lack of skill or commitment, it is relatively painless for a manager to redirect that behavior. Oftentimes, a manager’s best strategy may sound something like this: “James, you’re an excellent programmer and a great contributor to the development team, but you don’t do a good job of documenting your design and code. I really want to put you on the new product team, but I’m not comfortable with assigning you to such a strategic project because I’m concerned you will be pulled off to support this product component.”

Sometimes, people are limited by intellectual or emotional shortcomings that managers must address delicately. Of course, managers are emotional beings as well, which sometimes makes it difficult to address these deficiencies. For example, I strongly favor personal choice where religion is concerned, and I find it offensive when an otherwise productive employee with opposing convictions voices an opinion in the workplace. While I might like to criticize that employee’s intolerance, my duty as manager is to determine whether this behavior actually damages the company — or whether I should afford this employee absolute freedom of speech. In short, before offering criticism, managers must step back from their own emotional reactions.

Separate Judgment From Criticism

Effective criticism does not pass judgment on an employee or attempt to characterize that person’s behavior as self-destructive or wrong. The manager is not responsible for fixing what is “wrong” with the employee — even if a complete overhaul appears to be in the employee’s best interest. I recall a time when I took a “frontal” approach that failed miserably. I knew when I hired Darla (not her real name) that she had a cynical attitude and a tendency to gossip. But I had a choice of two candidates, and I knew the other candidate to be a dedicated malcontent.

So I hired the cynic. After approximately one year of trying to use the indirect approach, I concluded that Darla suffered from the “unloved child” problem — she always felt passed over. In an indirect attempt to address this problem, I promoted her to a project manager position because I felt a public endorsement would help her adopt a more positive attitude. It didn’t. And I finally had to confront her problem directly. I said that as long as she saw herself as an unloved child, she was destined to be one. Mistake. She not only failed to change her behavior, she quit a year later and hates me to this day.

Criticize the Behavior, Not the Person

What should you do with someone like Darla? Identify the negative behavior, explain how it hurts the company, and provide a concrete description of your desired behavior. For example, I should have said to Darla, “I understand that you don’t like Sam. Can you explain the problems you have with him so I can help both of you address them?” If her complaint was legitimate, I could have followed up with Sam and included Darla in the conversation so she could learn that the appropriate way to register a legitimate complaint is in an open and forthright manner. If Darla didn’t have substantive complaints about Sam, I could have told her, “As employees of the company, we don’t have to like our colleagues. But we have a common goal, and it is important that we respect each other. I would appreciate it if you would restrain from voicing disapproval of your colleagues at work. When you’re here, you need to support the goals of the company.”

If Darla then didn’t alter her behavior, I could have begun to register and document concerns about her performance in a way that would allow the company to terminate her with minimum risk of litigation. And if she quit, she may have still hated me, but I would have had the satisfaction of knowing that I had objectively and professionally addressed her performance issues.

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Use Corporate Culture

Being forthright about people’s shortcomings takes courage. By doing so, you risk angering colleagues whom you will have to face everyday. However, you have a much better chance of positively addressing performance problems if you learn to separate the behavior from the person. If you are the CEO, you can make this task easier for your managers by creating a climate in which people openly exchange praise and criticism in order to improve the company’s performance. If open discussions are the dominant mode of communication, employees will take a manager’s criticism less personally.

By Katherine Hammer

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