Interpersonal EDGE: Give Criticism But Skip Crisis
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

 By Dr. Daneen Skube

Tribune Media Services
Q. I'm the manager of a large department under enormous production pressures. When I give bad feedback, employees get defensive, resentful or openly hostile. How do I deliver criticism without demoralizing my staff?
A. Most folks confuse requests for behavior changes with inadequacy. People are also much touchier about their self-esteem than you'd ever suspect. I know you think you're discussing simple tasks, but the employee is focused on what an idiot you think he or she is.
When a manager gives negative feedback, an employee hears the manager saying the employee is worthless. The employee then defends not the behavior but the employee's value. Most arguments about who is right at work are actually arguments about self-esteem.
If you want to deliver bad news and make requests for change without triggering this normal response, you have to validate an employee's worth. For example something like, "Sara you are an important, competent and productive part of our team. I appreciate your leadership ability. I want you to change the way you start the morning meetings to encourage more participation. Let's talk about options."
If you realize that employees hear suggestions as an evaluation of their value, you'll sprinkle feedback sessions liberally with genuine praise. You'll be able to help employees see the difference between behavior changes and their innate value. Otherwise, you'll waste tons of time on self-esteem debates (yours or theirs).
Some employees won't tolerate any request for change. Any request for change implies a lack of perfection and these employees feel too ashamed of imperfection to tolerate bad feedback. You cannot praise these employees enough to get them to listen. They will withdraw into icy indifference or rage at a manager cruel enough to point out room for improvement. 
Try to spot employees who can't stand criticism at the interview stage. When you interview, ask a question that makes a prospective employee talk about a mistake. Are they accountable? Did they learn anything? Are they still defending themselves?
It also helps if you normalize and celebrate mistakes as part of learning. Praise employees for accountability, risk taking and mistakes, not just successes. If employees know you want progress, not perfection, then feedback will motivate not demoralize.
Q. My boss has asked me to spy on employees and report back. Is this a reasonable assignment?
A. Only if you're a private investigator.
Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker. You can contact Dr. Skube at or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies. 

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