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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Giving Constructive Criticism—That Won't Make Anyone Cringe

I’ll go right ahead and start out by admitting that unless everything is going great, giving and receiving feedback can be pretty rough. The term “constructive criticism” was surely invented as a cruel joke to staff and managers alike.

But, as a manager, you’re going to have to get really, really comfortable delivering it. A lot of it. And while it’s a challenge to give tough feedback to anyone, it’s particularly difficult when it’s to an under-performing employee, or the one who grates on your last nerve. In short, in these situations, a bit of artistry is required.

Several years ago, I had an employee who wasn’t exactly my favorite (yes, bosses have favorites). In an attempt to avoid getting snippy with her, I tended to distance myself from her whenever possible. And that worked pretty well—until she approached me to ask for a raise.

The fact that she had the stones to ask for a raise got me thinking the problems with her performance weren’t just her fault—I was her manager, after all. It was my job to guide and support her until she earned that raise, and if I wasn’t happy with her performance, I owed it to both of us to tell her.

It wasn’t easy, but I did manage to deliver the feedback she needed to hear, while keeping things constructive and avoiding hard feelings. And you can, too.

Pretend She’s Someone You Deeply Respect

When you have to deliver some tough talk to a person you don’t particularly care for or are already frustrated with, it’s tricky to get the words right without sounding like a jerk. So, to help me keep the conversation both civil and fair, I imagined I was speaking to someone I really respected.

Why? Well, when dealing with someone you respect, you’re usually careful with your words, and you’re naturally super-conscious of how the other person might feel upon hearing your feedback.

For example, let’s pretend you overhear a colleague, who’s been your mentor and role model for years, give some terrible advice to an intern. You’d have to say something, right? But, would you just come right out and say, “Your advice was terrible!” Probably not.

Instead, you’d approach her with tact and humility, but you wouldn’t sugar-coat it either—she can handle the truth, and deserves your honest opinion. And, so do your employees. Liking your staff is not in your job description, but mentoring them is. It’s your job to guide them in the right direction, even if it’s the last thing on earth you’d choose to be doing on a Tuesday morning.

Set the Stage

Giving feedback can be an emotional process for both parties. Even if you’ve got your childhood idol in mind as you begin your speech, sentiment alone won’t cut it. You need examples to share to illustrate your point.

Before your meeting, think back to a clear-cut, specific example of your employee doing whatever it is that drives you crazy or has been causing problems with her performance. But, try to pick something that could’ve happened with anyone on the team—you don’t want her to get on the defensive before you make your point.

In my case, I chose an example of a habit that everyone on my team seemed to have on occasion, but happened to be one of this employee’s biggest challenges. I described an incident in which she had promised a client she would resolve an issue right away, then proceeded to take off for lunch—without telling the team or her client she would be away.

I omitted all the damning facts, so she could imagine it happening to another employee—which naturally made her less defensive, and allowed our conversation to be based on real examples, without pointing fingers.

Turn the Tables

Once you’ve set the stage with your example, it’s time to put your employee in the driver’s seat. It’s empowering for anyone to be asked how she’d suggest a situation should be managed—and that’s exactly how you want your employee to feel.

After describing the situation, I told my employee that I was finding it challenging to address the issue, and asked how she would handle the matter if she were managing the group. This opened up a discussion, which allowed both of us to share what worked and what didn’t, all without throwing anyone under the bus.

Ideally, by the end of your discussion, your employee will have identified her own challenges, and have some suggested solutions she came up with on her own. You may have guided the conversation, but the advice will be hers, and that can be a motivating tool.

Give Her a Chance

Whatever the backstory, you’re an important player in your employee’s career, and it’s up to you to help position her for success. And part of that means giving her a chance to put her carefully crafted advice into practice.

After my discussion with my employee, I asked her to help me identify and resolve similar issues going forward. I highlighted the ideas of hers I liked best, and added a few of my own, until we both had designed a plan. But, asking her to just help me out wasn’t enough. I wanted her to take ownership of the project, and be responsible for the outcome—and ideally, its success. So, I also charged her with presenting her findings to the group at the next team meeting.

By giving her a chance to take her own advice, and trusting her with the responsibility of representing the team, that feedback just might stick.

Being a manager can be incredibly fulfilling, and working through challenges—whether that’s telling your least-favorite team member how her horrible fashion sense is killing the mood at conferences, or that her combative attitude with clients is making everyone’s life difficult—will help you both take your careers to the next level.

Photo courtesy of Jodi Womack.