Getting criticism to deliver at work

Used correctly, criticism can improve performance, enhance trust and advance goals

Strategies for coaching athletes don’t always work for executives trying to manage employees . . . but some best practices translate. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Strategies for coaching athletes don’t always work for executives trying to manage employees . . . but some best practices translate. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

 

In my college days I ranked among the top 10 women divers in the United States. I got that far not just because I worked hard – practising every day in four- to six-hour sessions – but also because I had an extremely tough coach who routinely offered both caring support and sharp criticism.

Strategies for coaching athletes don’t always work for executives trying to manage employees. But when it comes to delivering criticism, I do think some best practices translate. Used correctly, criticism can improve performance, enhance trust and advance the achievement of mutual goals. Used incorrectly, it can be toxic to a relationship.

How can you increase the likelihood that your employees will perceive the criticism you offer them as helpful and well-intended and be more willing to act on it, as I was with my diving coach? Based on my experience, I’ve developed four guidelines:

Engage the person in a specific solution: All too often managers offer criticism in general terms, leaving the receiver to guess what remedy is expected. Good coaches are, by contrast, extremely specific: “Straighten your left leg.” They encourage the athlete to problem-solve with them: “What could you do to start that twist earlier?”

Builds confidence

Engaging employees in a specific solution ensures they’ll get it right next time, communicates respect for their opinions and builds their confidence.

Link the criticism to the employee’s priorities: My coach knew I wanted to please my parents. So, during diving workouts, if I was goofing off, all my coach had to say to get me focused was: “Do you think what you are doing right now is going to make your parents proud of you?”

The same tactic can be used with employees. If employees see the link between the criticism and the things they care about personally, they’ll be more receptive to it.

Keep your voice and body language neutral: Coaches do yell sometimes; mine would bark at me from across the pool when I’d botched an easy dive. But, ideally, workplace criticism is far more effective when delivered in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, with a relaxed facial expression and with neutral body language. An unemotional delivery sends a message that the criticism is simply part of doing business.

Heed individual preferences: My coach knew I liked to hear what he thought of each dive. I preferred that he be direct and to the point so that I had a clear understanding of what I needed to do differently. Employees also have feedback preferences. Early on, before your employees have a chance to do anything that requires criticism, ask them how, when and even where they prefer to receive feedback.

When bosses follow these guidelines, employees are much more likely to make good on the goal of welcoming negative feedback. Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Deborah Bright is founder and president of Bright Enterprises and author of The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance and Promote Change

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