Giving Criticism Like a Pro
Stop talking if you’re a critical boss.
You may say, “I’m just being helpful.” Unrequested criticism is like a drive-by shooting – there’s no responsibility for positive outcomes. It’s sleazy and easy.
After writing, “Taking Criticism Like a Pro” a reader asks, “How about teaching bosses how to give criticism like a pro?”
10 Ways to give great criticism:
- Great criticism begins long before it’s given. Never criticize before you’ve instructed, explained, and illustrated values and desired behaviors. Values are most important; behaviors follow. Leaders first teach then criticize.
- Affirm more; criticize less. Great places to work are positive, affirming, and encouraging. You’re lazy, ignorant, or stupid if you think negative criticisms create positive work environments. Critical bosses create critical environments.
- The feedback sandwich creates indigestion if you aren’t a positive leader, already. (Feedback sandwich = affirmation – criticism – affirmation)
- Use critical thoughts as triggers to give positive affirmations; speak otherwise. I’m always seeing needed improvements. Over-emphasize the positive or you’ll become negative.
- Make excellence a team sport. Have a “how can we improve our intake procedure” conversation with all participants, for example. Begin with values and work toward behaviors. Choose one or two new behaviors to implement. Don’t overwhelm.
- Don’t wait. If you’re sure they know better, criticize immediately; the worse the offense the stronger the criticism. Hold yourself and others to high standards, if you don’t mediocrity sets in. (Observe all human resource guidelines, where applicable)
- Clearly explain and illustrate offenses, corrections, and consequences. There should be no surprises.
- Be pleasant when giving unpleasant news.
- Set deadlines and follow-up quickly. Next week is better than next month.
- Compliment more; people over-focus on criticism. (Yes that’s like #2-4)
Bonus: Pointing out faults is 10% of the work. Great criticism is always constructive; done well it changes people. Criticism is essential but its power is overrated.
How can leaders become great at giving criticism?
Give more positive affirmations vs. negative comments. What’s the ideal ratio? Four to one? Six to one?
I always try to be pleasant when criticizing. I couldn’t do it any other way. It’s how I’m wired.
Hi Steve. Research shows it takes 6 positives to balance out 1 negative. When I first read that I felt discouraged. How in the world could I say so many positive things. One thing I’m doing is saying fewer negatives. But, of course that’s only one side.
My experience is showing that a greater focus on positive reinforcement takes people and organizations further. It’s motivational.
Congrats on being pleasant…my problem I think I’m being pleasant but others don’t 🙂
I love the concept of an “emotional bank account” where praise is a deposit and critical feedback is a withdrawl. The best leaders ensure that they make enough deposits (catch ’em doing something right) to “cover” and withdrawls, without overdrawing the account.
Thank you Marcia. Great illustration.
I heard Jack Welch say something like… when you find people doing something good, go crazy over it.!
Marcia, this is very much the Stephen Covey concept, I think, which is really valuable to keep in mind. Always just make sure that you are in credit! As Dan said earlier I think the ration has to be six to one which should ensure this happens!
Be a S.W.O.T !
Become aware of the diverse opportunities there are to critically acknowledge your people’s Strengths.
Identify areas where they and the business can improve on Weaknesses and offer constructive criticisms.
Create Opportunities to build their confidence and experiential growth development coupled with critical feedback and analysis.
Remove or limit barriers both internal and external where your employees may feel critical Threats exist ….. be aware that some times the biggest Threats are those we hold in our own critical minds 🙂
Thank you Imelda.
You’ve given us a great formula for forward movement. I particularly like the idea of building confidence. Criticism tends to tear down confidence – not always – but frequently when it’s done poorly.
and Dan, you have offered a great social interactive learning platform here, where people can discover and build their own internal confidence and authentic voice via writing their thoughts out on cyber paper, a bit like back to school 🙂 so thank you too !
When the student is ready the teacher appears and vice versa, and in today’s technology assisted world, God only knows whose classroom you will be lucky and comfortable to find yourself in !
Thanks for being an encourager… 🙂
I once had a boss that actually thought criticism and having people afraid of him was the way to motivate!
Diana, I observed numerous people in my work life in management positions who behaved like this and some even reduced grown adults to tears, nervous wrecks and sick leave ……. the cost to the company because of their poor leadership skills I don’t believe was ever accounted for ……
Yes Imelda, it’s pretty sad isn’t it? I wonder how some companies miss it? How they don’t see the cost associated with it?
I think it happens in all walks of life to varying degrees and a blind eye is turned to it ….. I had a niece a few years back who was given a really hard time by a teacher in primary school who nit picked over everything she did, found fault in all and praise was limited, she actually just had a personality clash with this young vivacious child ….. at the end of the year when my sister attended the final one to one with the teacher, the teacher apologized to my sister and said that she had been having personal issues all year and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown most of the time while teaching !! – Now this is the type of personalities we have teaching our children – it doesn’t get much better with some people in places of authority – how we deal with it as adults diplomatically when at times it is so personal can be a real challenge.
I know quite a number of people who would have preferred not to have through that learning curve at all ……
I think leaders can criticize without others feeling insulted. If this is done, criticism works like healer. But when criticism is done causing pain to others, it destroys more. So, feeling is crucial while criticizing.I agree with you that leaders should be pleasant while giving unpleasant news.
I believe one should criticize when invited to do that. Unnecessary poking is just damaging relationship and time. However, when it is absolutely necessary to criticize someone, leaders should make environment that is friendly or comfortable to express feelings. The important thing to note is to appreciate first about good behaviors or habits and then send the message. And also connect the improvement part with the outstanding outcomes. Leaders should also show others how overcoming some habits could result into dramatic personality change or turnaround success, If this is done, I think criticism can become a strategy to become successful.
Thank you Ajay.
One thing I take away from your comment is the value of creating a culture where people invite criticism. With that in mind, asking “how can I be better?” is better than asking what am I doing wrong.
I believe Leaders become great at giving criticism when the people receiving the criticism sense that its in their interest (not the givers).I think the power that is underrated in our time is the power genuinely caring.. So its less style and more heart. Put another way..when people understand how deeply you care, you have potential for great influence.
Thank you Ken.
I’ll never forget when I was going over a tough conversation with a fellow leader and he said… “Everything you just said is about you, not them.” Man was that a wake up call.
Dan-making excellence a team sport is outstanding advice. Wasn’t it Stephen Covey who suggests that there is plenty of credit to go around when things go well?
Thank you Christian.
I’m not sure who gets the credit for “plenty of credit to go around.” They’re right.
When we make excellence a team sport we don’t have to point out individuals as much.
Hmm, wonder if its not what you say, but how and when you say it? If you are reactively providing feedback/criticism, what does that actually say about you?
If the criticism is an observation on a failure and 94% (Deming) of the failures are systemic (leadership is responsible and accountable for the systems), what missteps do you have in this tango?
Potentially, if it is a systems issue, you may first owe an apology to the person you are going to criticize, for not providing the tools, training, and/or skills so that they can do their work well.
If it is that other 6%, how and when still ring true, if you are invested in helping that person grow either within your organization or otherwise.
If you want to shift the paradigm, #5 “how can we improve our intake procedure” conversation with all participants is key and by all participants mean the person who receives your service or product. Tangentially, in the movie, Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Jack Crabb suggested something like that (with dire consequences) to General Custer… hopefully we are beyond that level of error/critique.
To ask all participants, not with conjecture or employee brainstorming (could do that too), but direct feedback from the end user is powerful. Have those who make the product or do the work, seek out very specific feedback on how to improve what has been done.
Imagine, in healthcare for example, if, as a routine part of the treatment (and improvement) process, the MD or RN takes the time to ask for feedback on ‘what can I improve on’, what is working and what is not, from the individual patient in the moment. (While I believe Al Diaz’s group is doing this, they are the exception, not the standard.) If that becomes the standard, then the critique has the highest validity and accountability.
Thank you Doc.
You keep putting the ball back in our court…OUCH! 🙂
I hadn’t thought of including the person who receives the product as part of the conversation about achieving excellence… DOH! Of course.
Thanks for adding your insights.
Great post. It is very important for leaders to get good at providing feedback to their employees. Unfortunately too often that feedback is negative. If you take the time to foster a culture were continuous improvement is the norm, then it’s easier to address the negative situations in a positive way – it becomes about improving not “fixing”.
I’ve always looked for ways to be as neutral as possible when correcting behaviors. Starting with a phrase like “I have observed that….” helps to stress the objectivity of the comment. This way it’s less about what i want (and who cares much about that) and more about what is seen by others. It can help stop the defensive response.
As well, look for ways to catch people doing well. Showing sincere appreciation for even mundane things will make the team feel valued which opens the door to corrections when needed.
Again, thanks for sparking such interesting discussions about leadership.
Thank you Carol.
Including organizational culture in this conversation is essential. You really nailed it.
Thanks also for bringing up the focus on behaviors not persons… “Neutral”..
Reblogged this on For your mind & future only.
Dan, great post and discussion – I echo Ken’s earlier post and your follow-up comment. When those we lead know that we care about them, then ‘criticism’ can become a simple course correction. I have used a line from Roosevelt to keep my priorities clear – “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Thanks for your work –
Thank you Spark.
Love the quote!
Bravo, Bravissimo … Superb Job … 1000 Thx you for sharing.!.!
Thank you Sandy!
My job is often about having to evaluate and make recommendations to others. It’s a hard thing to do and still maintain an effective consultative relationship. A long time ago I learned an evaluation technique for employees where the boss and the employee sit down regularly and decide what would constitute outstanding and acceptable performance. What should get done? How should it get done? What will it look like if it’s outstanding? Then future discussions – weekly, monthly, as needed – can be put in context with this mutual understanding. Criticism, if offered following the 10 ways you suggest, and put in context with mutually agreed aspirations, can be really effective. Or better, avoided because the employee often brings up concerns about coming up short of outstanding before the boss. While now I mostly evaluate projects and systems, I use the same approach of collaborating to define what would be outstanding and then evaluating and recommending in that context.
You sir, are awesome! Thank you so much….I appreciate the post. #2 and # 6 were the best points to me, with #5 and #7 close runner ups.
It is extremely difficult to maintain a positive outlook or perspective when faced with constant negativity from management. As I have mentioned before, my past experiences were not only consistent, but also with different industries. I started looking hard at myself to attempt to understand why I was the common denominator. This has led me to a year long journey of personal development. I can’t say that I fully understand what it was about me that seemed to “attract” (law of attraction) these situation because much of it had little to do with “them” and more about me and my subconscious. For instance, had I been confident that I was the best me that I could be, then perhaps their opinion and poor leadership would not have stirred up those feelings of inadequacy or insecurity….perhaps.
With regard to this post, one of the things that use to really bother me was that when management was asked to explain their reasoning, it was like I had asked them a dirty question! How dare I think I deserve an answer!…ok, dramatic, I know, but it was just as ridiculous.
I would implore those whom are in a leadership position, when (not if) you’re in a position where you are having to let someone go, please do not hide behind your title or company “policy” when that person is trying to get feedback from you in order to understand what went wrong. Also, how about not waiting until it’s so far gone that you need to terminate an employee. How about just being honest with them and let them know that maybe this position or department or whatever may not be a good fit for them and then help them locate another position or department that would work to everyone’s satisfaction? OR how about letting them have enough notice that it’s not going as planned and that they had 30-60-90 days to find another company to work for? Am I being too hopeful that this could become part of a company’s culture???? The way I see it is that this person was hired based on their skills and abilities, so they must have some value? Right?
As you can tell, this topic still “gets me”. I will say that I work for/with a great bunch of people now. There is much respect and appreciation, and NO ONE is on a power trip (including me now that I’m a manager too – hahaha). All of the negative experience did teach me a lot about how to NOT manage. It also created an urgency for me to better understand myself and others, so essentially I am grateful that I went through all the pain of being treated worse than a stray….dramatic again, I know ;-).
Thanks again Dan!
I think there is only one easy rule giving criticism like a pro to think about: “Treat others the way you want them to treat you.”
Regards from Germany,
This article demonstrates to me I am on the right path when giving critisism. I am glad I decided to read this post today, as I was questioning myself if I should be more harsh.
I always feel so energized after a 1:1 with an employee regardless if I had to deliver bad news.
My favorite line in this post is: “Affirm more; criticize less. Great places to work are positive, affirming, and encouraging.” This is definitely a great list to follow, Dan! Thanks much, you leadership freak 🙂
Dan, brilliant article! Since I am working with innovation and ideas management software at TalkFreely we often face the problem of leaders (well managers, mostly) being unable to give proper criticism and most importantly they forget #2: “affirm more; criticize less”, so there’s a lot of tension between managers and employees.