Effective criticism and discipline will keep your team on track

7 October 2012 06:30 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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If you are a manager, supervisor and a team leader of a business organisation, I ask you the following question, what would be your answer?  ‘What is your most unnerving task as a leader--the task that you’d most like to avoid?’  

I bet your answer goes something like this:  “Giving someone the ‘bad news’--telling someone on my team that his or her performance is not up to par.”  
If giving negative feedback disturbs you, don’t be alarmed.  Research findings indicate that practicing leaders in a wide range of organisations and industries view the task of ‘criticizing’ subordinates--giving them negative feedback--as one of the most stressful tasks they face. Apparently, a very few people enjoy playing the role of ‘bearer of ill tidings’ and having to watch other people learn that their work has somehow been lacking. 

Unfortunately, particularly in times of crisis, this reluctance to deliver negative feedback can prove very costly to the organisation.  Consider how the process often unfolds.  If you are hesitant to criticize, you don’t deliver it when the problem starts. Thus, poor performance and related problems may persist and even, intensify over time.  Eventually, since you are in authority, you must take corrective action--as the responsibility for poor performance ultimately rests with you.

By this time, you would have reached the end of your own emotional rope and simply cannot tolerate the current state of affairs any longer. Then, criticism is unlikely to be effective. Instead of helping recipients improve--the ‘only’ rational reason for delivering negative feedback--the criticism tends, instead, to anger or provoke them. And from the recipient’s perspective, such reactions make eminent sense:  “If I haven’t been doing a good job,” he might ask, “why didn’t you tell me sooner?” 

Before you criticise
Four decades ago, it was back at an Indian university that I first came across this technique for improving the way we criticise. It was taught to us by our sociology professor. Today, I find a refined version of the same method termed as the Sandwich technique.
But before you use it to criticise, it might be useful to stop and think for a few minutes. Ask yourself:
4Is this something worth bringing up?
4Is there really a problem?
4If there is, is it really big or just something I have magnified in my mind?
4May be I’m just feeling angry/down/sour and want to express those feelings by lashing out?
Think about those questions. Be absolutely sure that there is a real need to criticize.

Sandwich technique
4Praise the employee. To avoid making criticism seem totally negative, it’s important to touch on the employee’s strong points as well. For example, if the employee regularly submits accurate and information-filled reports, you could say, “Sanath, your reports are both informative and helpful to the company. You are doing very well.”

4Tell the employee you’ve noticed a few things he could improve on. Reference your list of the employee’s shortcomings. Explain each item on the list in detail. For example, if you tell the employee he needs to communicate better with customers, explain how his communication skills appear substandard. Suppose the employee appears rude to customers. Give the employee examples of how he appears rude. The employee needs to understand exactly what he’s doing wrong.

4Explain how the employee can improve on his shortcomings. When you constructively criticize someone, you must give him strategies to improve on his faults. For example, if an employee often comes in late, tell him to set his alarm for an earlier time, leave 15 minutes before he usually does or carpool with another employee.

4End with encouragement, with how solving this could improve his performance, efficiency and productivity and raise the level of his acceptance in the workplace even more. By giving reasons to fix his shortcomings, you offer him a powerful motivator to get the issues handled.

Why should you use this technique?
4It’s effective because it doesn’t put the criticised in too much of a defensive or awkward position. He will often be more receptive to your criticism if you start on a positive note than if you just blurt out your negative thoughts.

4It ends on a positive and constructive note. This does less damage to the relationship between the one criticising and the critiqued. Ending a meeting just when you’ve delivered negative criticism is not a great idea. The future of that relationship could get damaged.

Tips
What makes criticism constructive rather than destructive?  From my own insights as well as systematic research, I have formulated a short list of points to consider before, during and after criticizing others.  

4Criticize in private and praise in public: Public criticism makes everyone uncomfortable and it makes you look as though you’re too cowardly to address the issue one on one. If an issue arises during a team meeting, acknowledge the problem but say it needs to be addressed “privately between Sanath and me.”

4Be specific: A common error is to offer negative feedback in general terms such as, “Your reports aren’t very good.” Such comments leave the listener in the dark about precisely what ‘would’ constitute good performance.  More specific comments such as “You’ve missed too many report deadlines this year” or “Directors are complaining that your reports are too long” are much more helpful.

4Be considerate: Make your remarks calm and rational--something that’s almost impossible to do when you are upset. Do your best to make certain that these are stated in palatable terms. You need not sugar-coat your remarks but do remember that being on the receiving end is as painful than delivering criticism. Finally, be sure to deliver negative feedback in private; criticizing people before others is never appropriate. 

4Avoid threats:  If there’s one thing that makes people angry when being criticized it is being threatened, directly or indirectly. Direct threats like “If you don’t start getting results, you’d better begin looking for another job” obviously will put someone on the defensive. Even relatively subtle remarks can also be unnerving. The key point is that threats back people into a corner and suggest that there’s no room for negotiation--either they do it your way or dire consequences will follow. This is usually counterproductive, especially when dealing with highly trained sales people.

4Focus on future, not past: It may be true that we must understand the past to change the future. However, where criticism is concerned, it can be a serious blunder to dwell on the past.  Beyond a certain point, going back over the past mistakes just increases tension and assures that recipients will spend their time arguing rather than listening. It is usually more useful to concentrate on ‘where we go from here’--on what specific steps can be taken to improve the recipient’s performance.

Work environment
To most people, except for those who truly enjoy inflicting pain and embarrassment, providing negative feedback to subordinates is difficult. Certain pitfalls await anyone--even someone of exceptional good will--who must criticize others.  Yet, basic guidelines will enhance the benefits of negative feedback and guide you past some of these pitfalls.  

Effective people management cannot be accomplished without both positive and negative constructive criticism. Perfecting the technique of keeping criticisms within the guidelines will ensure that your subordinates know what they do well and where they need to improve. This is vital for a healthy and low stress work environment - for employees and leaders alike.
(The writer is a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience. He can be contacted at lionwije@live.com)


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  • Greshan Gabrlel Monday, 08 October 2012 12:00 AM

    Great article. Helped me to realise what I'm doing is wrong. I would love to see and article from you about Motivation. via DM Android App


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