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Criticizing employees the right way

Telling an employee their performance is less than acceptable might be the toughest thing a manager must do. It was always that way for me. I was never sure who was more nervous during a performance review — me or the employee.

On one hand, I wanted to precipitate a significant change. On the other, I didn’t want to offend the person. After all, I knew the tone and content of my criticism could have greatly affected the way we would interact for the future — and not necessarily for the better. Sound familiar? If you’re a manager, I’ll bet it does.

Perhaps I should have read more from a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today, Anita Bruzzese (45things.com). The author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy,” Bruzzese recently offered a half-dozen useful tips for giving criticism that, hopefully, the recipients will actually welcome. Here are the highlights:

  • What’s your mood? It’s not fair to an employee to be on the receiving end of your bad mood. So if you’ve just read a notice from your floorplan lender raising you rate or been chewed out by a customer because his boat’s not ready, be fair and reschedule your meeting with the employee.
  • Got the facts? If you want to feel like a real fool, criticize an employee and find out you didn’t have your facts straight. Bruzzese cautions not to jump to conclusions before you give the employee a chance to tell their side of the story. Talk to others who may have been present during an incident. Remember, nothing will lose you respect more than not having the facts right.
  • Know the problem? It’s important to be specific and clear if you intend to encourage the employee to change and be better. Being vague, like telling the person you “feel” they’re not getting the job done, won’t cut it. And don’t ever drag up incidents from the past that were already resolved. Address only the specific problem at hand.
  • What’s your goal? The objective of offering criticism should be to encourage the employee to do better and lead them to believe they can. Therefore, it’s equally important to listen. Don’t rehash the problem multiple times. And end the meeting in a way that fosters a positive relationship. That leads to the next point.
  • Did you agree on a goal? The meeting shouldn’t end unless you both have agreed on what can be done to improve the situation. Let the employee offer ideas that you can both take into account when setting the final goal.
  • Are you accommodating? While Bruzzese advocates asking the employee how he or she might like to receive feedback – email or face-to-face conversation - if it’s possible to give a choice, I believe only the latter is in order. While offering a choice could show you’re thinking about that person, which could set a good tone from the start, face-to-face talking is the best way to discuss and encourage the employee. You really can’t explore goals and actions well in emails.

It’s not easy to be critical of anyone, but offering feedback that can help someone become better at what they do is always worth the effort.

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