Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

How to handle criticism

Bookmark and Share

Remember that old Allman Brothers’ song “Whipping Post,” which vividly described the whipped feeling that is commonly generated by life’s trials? Sadly, the song reminds me of the emotional pain commonly caused by verbal floggings from managers, colleagues and others.

Nevertheless, by using self-control, tact and thought, you can minimize the pain, speed your recovery and even glean some helpful advice from professional criticism.

Some tips:

• Don’t take criticism personally. No matter how tactlessly or viciously criticism is delivered, it’s really about something you may or may not have done — not about who you are or what you’re worth.

Plus, no one has the judgment or right to pass a referendum on your personal worth. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

• Evaluate your interpretation of events. Then, evaluate whether the criticism was justified, no matter how tough it may be to admit fault.

• Clean up and quickly move on. After receiving warranted criticism or suggestions, immediately focus on the future and how you will do better next time. Apologize to your critic for any transgressions you made, and acknowledge to him the worthiness of his points; if necessary, ask for clarification of future expectations, and explain how you will meet them.

Then, the next time that you follow your critic’s suggestions, tell him that you’ve fixed the error of your ways by saying something like, “I took your helpful advice on X, and it produced Y results.”

• Don’t apologize needlessly. Answer unwarranted criticism by saying something like, “I’m sorry that this happened and that you feel that way,” and then express openness to new approaches. But don’t admit guilt for wrongs that you didn’t commit.

• Craft your response. When faced with unwarranted criticism, write a logical, concise explanation of the situation and why the associated criticism was wrong. If possible, bolster your defense with objective evidence, such as supporting e-mails, phone messages, transcripts of supporting statements from other involved colleagues, timelines, copies of relevant regulations and documents. Omit statements about how you’ve been victimized. Once you finish your defense, review it and evaluate whether you really want your critic to hear it.

If so, role-play your defense with trusted advisers. Practice presenting it, along with supporting evidence, until your delivery is calm, smooth, logical and confident. Also, anticipate your critic’s potential responses to it and practice rebutting them.

• Temper the tone. There is no place for yelling at work. And you’re under no obligation — no matter how bad your mistakes may be — to be yelled at or verbally abused. If your critic bullies you, unemotionally and decisively say something like, “I think our discussion about X would be more productive if we would take a time out now and talk later when it would be calmer.” Refrain from getting emotional or defensive. Speak to your critic as tactfully and respectfully as you would if he were complimenting you. Stick with the facts — don’t use emotional or confrontational language. If possible, use humor to defuse tension. Also, let your critic finish his argument without interrupting him, no matter how wrong it may be. And then deliver your rebuttal.

If your critic interrupts you, calmly say, “I let you finish. Now, please let me finish.” By maintaining your dignity and lowering your discussion’s decibel level, you maintain the moral high ground — which will hold you in good stead if your dispute is ratcheted up to higher authorities. You will also increase your chances of being heard — literally and figuratively.

• Document. If your boss rebuffs or ignores your response to unwarranted criticism, submit your response to him in writing, and write down and date everything that was said, written and done by everyone involved in the situation. Keep this documentation to support any formal actions you may be compelled to pursue in the future.

• Seek second opinions. If you’re unsure whether criticism is warranted, explain your situation objectively and accurately to trusted, free-thinking advisers. If they side with your critics, reconsider your position. But if they side with you, discuss potential follow-up strategies with them.

Positive ways to give negative feedback

Bookmark and Share

My May 3 column explained how to give negative feedback and correct otherwise diligent staffers in a humane, respectful way. Some more tips.

* Remember your purpose. Your negative feedback should be designed to provide constructive feedback that will help your staffers increase their contributions to your office — not to embarrass or demean or “gotcha” them.

* Watch your voice. When you criticize or make suggestions to subordinates, your tone should be as calm, tactful and respectful as when you speak to your superiors.

* Don’t pry into personal matters. Don’t relate your staffer’s mistakes to his personal problems if he does not bring them up himself. For example, avoid saying things like, “I heard you recently went through a breakup. Is that why you have been slacking off?”

* Don’t be personally offensive. When possible, focus on your staffer’s work and results, not on your staffer himself. For example, rather than saying, “You are always so careless on your reports,” say, “In the future, it would be helpful if your reports went through more quality controls” or “There is something we need to change in our procedure; these reports should go through more quality controls.”

* Use gentle phrasing. Phrase your criticism with considerate, nonconfrontational language that will allow otherwise dependable staffers to save face. For example, suppose your assistant is usually diligent and efficient, but you know he is resistant to admitting mistakes. When you must correct him, you could allow him to save face by saying, “X happened, perhaps you could take care of it,” or “I just wanted to tell you that X is the person to consult on these matters instead of Y.”

* Give rationales. Explain why it is important for your staffer to correct his approach and follow your instructions, if such rationales are not self-evident.

* Explain expectations. Clearly define needed improvements.

* Use the sandwich method. If possible, position your criticism between compliments. Your opening compliment will ingratiate your staffer to you and thereby make him more receptive to your criticism, and your closing salvo will leave him in an enthusiastic mood, rather than a resentful one.

For example, suppose your staffer is consistently finishing quarterly reports late, and you want to tell him to start meeting deadlines. You could phrase your feedback like this: “Jim, the quality of your quarterly reports is excellent; they are complete and reader-friendly. But the reports have come in late every month. The deadlines are important because they are congressionally mandated, and so late reports give our agency a black eye. Please make a special effort to finish the reports on time in the future. Do you need any additional support or trouble-shooting help to do so?” Then, after the staffer answers your question and pledges to meet deadlines, you could end the conversation by saying, “I know that you will keep up the high quality of your reports, and I look forward to reading your next one.”

By contrast, if your corrections are delivered without or before positive statements, you will probably alienate your staffer. This principle was recently demonstrated by a manager who started his discussion with a wayward staffer with criticism and then ended it with positive feedback. The manager took this approach because he assumed that his staffer would prefer to clear the air of negativity before discussing his achievements. “I was wrong,” the manager says. “My staffer was obviously offended by my criticism and ended up tuning out before I even got to the good stuff.”

* Allow rebuttals. Give your staffers opportunities to respond to your criticisms or suggestions, and keep an open mind to their viewpoints.

* No gossiping. If possible, don’t discuss your staffers’ mistakes and how angry they made you with other staffers.

* Reward good behavior. When your staffer corrects his approach, compliment his improvement.

* Be fair. Throughout each rating period, compliment your staffers at least as freely and enthusiastically as you give them negative feedback.

Tags: , , , , ,

Deliver negative feedback constructively

Bookmark and Share

A benevolent manager is one who delivers negative feedback and corrections to otherwise dependable staffers in a respectful, gentle style. Treat your staffers with respect, and they will respect you in return, and will therefore be more likely to follow your suggestions without push-back.

Some tips on correcting staffers as painlessly and as constructively as possible:

• Pick your battles. If the transgression was relatively minor and unlikely to be repeated, consider just forgetting it.

• Verify your charges. Check that your staffer had been instructed properly and that his alleged mistake was actually his fault and really did happen as you think it did. Do so by interviewing other staffers about what happened, if appropriate; opening your conversation with your wayward staffer by asking him how the mistake happened; and considering whether extenuating circumstances may mitigate his guilt.

• Empathize. It is just as unpleasant for your staffers to receive negative feedback as it is for you to receive negative feedback.

• Privacy, please. While it is great to go public with praise, negative feedback should be delivered only behind closed doors — not in a meeting, hallway, behind an open door or in any other place where others can hear your discussion. The public humiliation that will result from a public flogging will probably only alienate your staffer without necessarily improving his productivity.

• Analyze the causes of mistakes. Consider whether your staffer’s mistake was part of a regular pattern of preventable mistakes, or was perhaps caused by momentary carelessness, boredom, a poor attitude, his need for training or perhaps even your failure to provide clear and comprehensive instructions. The results of your analysis should help you identify which corrective actions would be most helpful to him.

• Give staffers what they need. If a wayward staffer needs training, mentoring, more detailed instructions or troubleshooting support to improve, provide it, if possible.

• Use good timing. If you’re worked up into a lather over your staffer’s mistake, cool down before you discuss the situation with him — or else you might end up spewing unproductive, angry words that you may later regret.

Also, if possible, don’t deliver criticisms on Fridays. If you do, your criticized staffer will probably spend the weekend stewing over his fall from grace and twisting in the wind about the ultimate fallout from his mistake. By contrast, if you deliver your criticism on another weekday, your staffer will be more likely to dive back into his work without excessive rumination.

Also, start your discussion with your staffer when you have a significant block of free time, rather than when you’re time-pressed and will therefore be tempted to deny your staffer a chance to respond to your criticism.

• No negative e-mails. You should deliver negative feedback (and negative comments of any sort to anyone, for that matter), only in person and face-to-face. However, if such contact is impossible, discuss the issue by telephone — but never by e-mail.

Why are negative e-mails verboten? Because e-mails lack soul. They don’t reveal tone of voice, facial cues or body language. Therefore, it is difficult for the sender of a negative e-mail to gauge the receiver’s true reactions to it — no matter how courteous his response e-mail may be. Therefore, you will never know whether your staffer really “heard” you, or whether your e-mail only triggered resentment or another reaction that may warrant follow-up from you. Plus, it is easy for negative e-mails to be misunderstood and therefore backfire.

What’s more, the one-sided nature of a critical e-mail deprives its recipient of an opportunity to immediately respond. I once heard that sending criticism by e-mail is like “lobbing a grenade over a wall and then running away.” The probable result: anger and alienation.

What’s more, e-mails may live forever and eventually be purposely or accidentally forwarded to unintended recipients.