Management Success Tip #184: How to Communicate Criticism So It Gets Heard!


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It would be a lovely world if employees did everything they were supposed to do, exactly the way you wanted it and in the time frame you desired. Your managerial tasks would be reduced to making glowing reports to the higher-ups, and handing out congratulations.

Unfortunately, there are times—probably more than you’d like—where you must set employees straight, get them back on track (or sometimes on the track in the first place), and point out the flaws, problems and failures in their work. The easiest option is to say your criticism like it is, and have done with it.

However, as Sheila Heen, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and co-author of “Thanks for the Feedback” so accurately states, showing people how they stack up is the “emotionally loudest” type of feedback. No matter how softly spoken, gently worded, or accurate your criticism is, it tends to overpower any appreciation or coaching, especially among younger workers.

This is no doubt one of the reasons for the success of Dr. Gottman’s famous “5:1” ratio in relationships: it takes five positive comments to balance out one negative comment.

Two helpful guidelines:

  1. Yes, follow Dr. Gottman’s ratio and do your best to offer five positive comments to counteract your one negative comment. Not necessarily in the same conversation, that would be beyond phony, but as a general rule of good communication. Be deliberate in finding positive things to say about your employee’s work, since the negative things are all to easy to come up with.
  2. Be specific with your criticism. “Your work is sloppy” is useless. It is hurtful and doesn’t give your employee any direction. To a legal assistant, for example, “Your work is sloppy” is better relayed as follows: “Please be sure to include legal references in footnotes at the end of every page. Please check your punctuation and spelling before handing over a brief for my review.”

Positivity works best when mixed with a small dose of judicious criticism.


Management Success Tip #170: Agree Upon Goals, Expectations and Standards for Maximum Employee Productivity and Company Success

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Your employees want to perform well. They want to be productive. Yes, they really do, despite the fact that it sometimes (often?) may not seem that way.

Or at least employees want to do well when they actually know what they’re supposed to be doing! Too often, managers assume that workers should know what they’re supposed to do, how to do it, how often, and by when (and you know what the informal definition of “assume” is). All this because the employees were told once or twice. Or it’s in the job description. Or worse–in the employee manual (updated every decade or so).

That’s mistreatment of a potentially great employee! Instead, take the time to set agreed-upon goals and expectations. Not just your goals, your expectations, but those you sat down with your employee and together, figured out the hows, whys, whats and wherefores thereof. Fancy talk for if you don’t spend the time to make sure you and your employee are on the same page with what is needed, it won’t happen.

Similarly, don’t leave your employees in the dark as to what are the standards set to earn a bonus or other reward. An employee may think he or she has done stellar work, and fully (and rightfully) expects some sort of recognition, only to find out that whatever-it-was had to be completed during the first quarter of the year to qualify for a bonus. Aargh! Major disappointment, unhappy employee–their performance tanks, no big surprise.

Clarify goals and standards. Discuss these with your employees. Write down whatever you’ve agreed on. Both your company and your employees will benefit tremendously.

Management Success Tip #154: Indulge In A Powerful Motivator: Thank Your Employees

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You’d think that saying “thank you” or “I appreciate what you did here” would be normal, business-as-usual, in the workplace. You certainly think that you do your fair share of appreciating your employees. You may very well, however, here’s a wake-up call from UK’s performance improvement consultants Maritz (as discussed by business consultant Steve Roesler): their “research has found that almost one in five of us (19 per cent) have never been thanked for our efforts at work while more than a third only hear those two little words once or twice a year.”

More importantly, approximately one third of workers “receive regular recognition and are thanked several times a week, something that (as more than eight out of 10 of those surveyed acknowledged) has a positive impact on their desire to remain with their employer.”

Even if you think you already recognize, appreciate, and actually speak words of thanks and appreciation to your employees, think again. Are there workers you regularly thank, but some you take for granted? Are there workers you overlook in your thanks? Do you only think “Gee, good work, I appreciate that” in your mind, or do you actually speak the words?

When you next do a walk-through, or as a team meeting concludes, make the effort to catch an employee – or several – in the act of doing something right, and thank them, right there on the spot, in specifics, for what they’ve done right.

Thanks matter.

Management Success Tip #139: Lead with Authority And Compassion: Disagree With A Respectful “No”

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You want happy, engaged employees – not just because it’s the right thing to strive for, but because it’s been demonstrated, time and again, that happy engaged employees lead to a thriving business.

You’ve noticed that people don’t like conflict. Heck, you don’t like conflict. Now you’re in a pickle when you feel you must disagree with something an employee did or said. On the one hand, you don’t want to be confrontive, on the other hand, you disagree.

So you waffle. You pretzel yourself trying to find “likeable” ways to disagree, which generally leads to confusion. The employee doesn’t know what you’re getting at, and by this time, you hardly do either.

Instead, follow Steve Roesler’s wise advice:

“People don’t have to be disagreeable in order to disagree. We often respect someone who tells us not only that (s)he sees things differently, but who then takes time to calmly explain “why.” Taking time to explain “why” is a sign of respect toward us.

When you mean “yes” say “yes.” When you mean “no” say “no.” And share your reasons.”

Sharing your reasons for either your “yes” or “no” grounds your leadership in both authority and compassion.

Your employees deserve no less.

Management Success Tip #131: A Better Approach to Employee Feedback: Adopt the 5:1 Magic Feedback Ratio

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You know that giving feedback is essential to your employees’ ability to perform well, but you’re not always sure about how to best go about it.

The “praise sandwich” – where a manager begins feedback with a dose of praise, then offers the criticism, only to end with another layer of praise – has been much maligned as leading to weak management, among other criticisms.

Unfortunately, some managers have turned to giving purely negative feedback, to the exclusion of positive, in order not to seem “weak.” But this approach weakens the employee-manager relationship itself, hardly the desired outcome.

What to do?  Don’t worry so much about the “sandwich,” focus instead on the ratio of positive to negative comments.

University of Washington psychologist John Gottman has noted in his study of long-term relationships, that in the most successful ones the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1  – even in the midst of a conflict.

That 5:1 ratio has been observed by countless others. It’s an excellent guideline.

Beyond that, put into practice Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s findings: that praising persistent efforts, even in situations where the employee has failed, helps build resilience and determination, while praising talent and ability results in risk-aversion and heightened sensitivity to setbacks.

Management Success Tip #124: Engage Your Employees in Their Review: Get Better Results!

Engage Your Employees in Their Review: Get Better Results!

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Most managers heartily dislike giving performance reviews. Having to sum up an employee’s performance for the whole year, rating according to scales that have little to do with the actual quality (or lack thereof) of the work done, that certainly do not measure the true value (or lack thereof) of the employee’s contribution, is a thankless task at best.

Employees don’t like it any better. As Samuel A. Culbert, Professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management, succinctly puts it:

“Performance reviews instill feelings of being dominated. They send employees the message that the boss’s opinion of their performance is the key determinant of pay, assignment, and career progress. And while that opinion pretends to be objective, it is no such thing. Think about it: If performance reviews are so objective, why is it that so many people get totally different ratings simply by switching bosses?”

Try a different approach. Give employees a sense of ownership of their review, a feeling of participation with you in their review. How? By starting the review with a set of questions that can turn the review into a conversation, rather than an indictment:

For example: “What have you noticed about your performance this year?” “What do you think went well?” “What would you have liked to have done differently?” “What pleased you about your work?” “Was there anything that disappointed you?” “What would you like to see happen differently this year?” “Anything you’d like to change?”

You may find that a review, conducted in this manner, actually does fulfill a worthwhile purpose.

Management Success Tip #108: Four Questions to Assure Good Communication Rather Than Just Assume It!

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You lay out a goal or project for your team, they are silent, you assume your team members are on board.

Good luck! As Kevin Eikenberry succinctly states:

“When we assume that other people know what we’re thinking, and what we are expecting of them, we do them a real disservice – and end up causing frustration and conflict…Nothing is ever obvious unless you made it obvious by spelling it out.”

Here are some good questions to ask of your employees, to assure good communication rather than assume it.

– “I just want to make sure that I am clear. Would you please tell me what you understood me to say?”

– “I’d like to make sure I said that clearly. Please tell me what you heard?”

– “I’m not sure that I am conveying my idea the best way. What have you heard me say?”

– “I may have said that in a way that does not really communicate what I’m trying to say. ..What message did you hear?”

Change these questions as needed to fit your personal style. It’s not the words that are important, but the idea behind them. The more you make sure that the message you communicated is indeed what is heard by those you speak to, the better for all concerned, as well as the success of your business.