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 #163: Give Employees What They Need to Know: Who? What? Why? When? How?!

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It’s common to think of job descriptions as a list of tasks or duties your employee must fulfill. Certainly, a job description has that function. However a job description has another, very important function, which too often is forgotten.

As Kristy Smith of Lead Change Group reminds us: “I would not accept a job from a company who didn’t clearly define job roles and expectations and I certainly would not lead a team without offering them. Why? Because I need to know what winning looks like. . . Without clarity and without painting the picture of what winning looks like, you can never truly measure performance. . . determining the who what why when how gets lost in the fog. When victories get lost in the fog and the “job well done” goes unrecognized, expect morale to drop.”

Don’t just hand out job descriptions, new or revamped, to employees and leave it at that. Instead, clarify roles and expectations. Specify in unmistakable terms what success looks like, and what are the rewards attached. Follow through by applauding all the victories along the way, small and large, and pointing out how those victories resulted from the accomplishment of various tasks and duties.

Morale will soar!

Management Success Tip #155: Don’t Rush To The Fix: Seek First To Understand!

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You’re a busy manager – too much on your plate all the time, and too little time. The curse of modern day business.

It’s perfectly understandable that in dealing with your employees, you want to go straight to the fix. Which you figure you know. After all, you’re the manager.

But here’s the thing: sometimes you don’t. You don’t know if the reason an employee is clock watching is because he/she is lazy and unengaged, or because there’s a sick child or elderly parent at home that requires care. You don’t know if it’s because the employee is rushing to get to a seminar, a team-sport activity, or a bar! You don’t know.

Instead of rushing to the fix, seek first to understand what’s going on with your employee. It’s what Steven Berglas, Ph.D., business consultant, calls “showing empathy.” He states, for example: “If you tell someone, ‘You know, you got an issue that calls for an attitude adjustment,’ youʼll never connect with them. Even if you are correct, the other person will dislike you for being insensitive. Say, ‘I sense you have been out of sorts for some time,’ and that person will embrace you.”

By not starting out with “the fix” and judging your employee on the basis of very little information, you’ve made it possible for your employee to share what’s really going on with them. Whatever it is, your fix will be far more appropriate and targeted, because now you actually know what the problem is.

Understanding is a far better road to effective management than guessing is. It also makes for a happier, more engaged workforce.

Management Success Tip #149: Speak It, Mean It – The Ultimate Employee-Engaging Question: “How Can I Help You?”

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The higher up the food chain you are, the less likely your employees are to believe that you have their best interests at heart. Common perception is that supervisors, department heads, managers and on up are interested in their own success, and the company or department’s success – but rarely the employee’s.

This may not be true for you at all, but if you want employee engagement, the holy grail of today’s businesses, then you must demonstrate your interest in your employees’ success and well-being, or develop such an interest if it’s not natural to you.

One of the easiest ways to do that is to cultivate the “How can I help you?” state of mind. To literally, ask employees “How can I help you?” with a sincere, genuine desire both to hear what they have to say, and to help them with their challenges and concerns.

A sterling example of this in action was Doug Conant, who, while he was CEO of Campbell Soup Company, asked “How can I help you?” all the time of his employees, and required his managers to do so as well. Over time, Conant’s approach – genuine and meaningful –  completely turned Campbell Soup Co. around, from declining market value and profits, and woeful employee engagement, to a once-again thriving corporation.

Management Success Tip #143: Wanna Get Things Done While Maintaining Your Cool? Find Your Assertiveness Sweet Spot.

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As a manager, you have to get things done, yet you need your employees to think well of you.

If you’re aggressive, and demand, blame, threaten, or yell – cooperation and morale fly out the window. You may get this one thing done, but employees will sabotage and/or resist the next twenty. . .

If you focus too much on camaraderie and making sure everyone is feeling fine, well, chances are things aren’t getting done in the way or time they need to.

There is, however, an assertiveness sweet spot, according to research done by Ames & Flynn, 2007. It’s somewhere between the drill sergeant approach and the find-your-inner-guru approach. It’s where you respect the personal boundaries of others, you communicate clearly your expectations rather than demand or threaten, you ask questions you really do want answered about the feasibility of stated goals, and provide resources as needed, etc.

How to know if you’ve hit the assertiveness sweet spot? It’s easier to ask how to know if you’re being too aggressive: people will shy away from you, or be reluctant to ask for resources or support. Or if you’re being too touchy-feely: people are comfortable approaching you for anything, but goals aren’t being met, your numbers are dragging.

Interestingly enough, according to Ames & Flynn, when you’re in that sweet spot, your assertiveness isn’t even mentioned. Things are just going along fine, and that’s what your employees and your bosses want to know.

Management Success Tip #132: Overcome Resistance to Change: Understand What’s In the Way

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You’re excited about the new software you want to implement, department-wide. Or you’re totally enthused about the new game plan marketing has developed to propel the success of your project. Or you’ve discovered a terrific new way to engage customers.

Off you go, putting the new whatever into effect, expecting nothing but great results, when HALT. You run up against a wall you truly did not expect: employee resistance. Oh, the surface, your employees may be nodding their heads and feeding you the party line: “Great idea, boss” – but underneath, you can hear their rumbles, and more importantly, nothing much is happening. Some of your employees are going with your new flow, some are even well-motivated, but a surprising number aren’t.

What’s up with that?

Resistance to change. Simple as that. Employees rarely adopt change with the zeal and gusto you’d like.

Why are they resisting?

Here are eight possible reasons, succinctly put forth by Dr. Ross Wirth:

“Inertia – comfort with the status quo

Timing – conflicts with other initiatives and/or priorities

Surprise – proper groundwork has not been done so people are caught off guard (need for  change not established)

Misunderstanding – benefits not properly understood

Cultural pressure – some who may want to change are held back by others in the  organization

Self-interest – conflicting personal priorities

Differing assessment – conflicting agreement over the value of the benefits associated  with the change

Difficulty of change – organizational momentum and individual resistance.”

Figure out which of these reasons might apply, and respond to them. The resistance that has blocked your success will, in all likelihood, melt away.