Is constructive criticism an art or a science? Using feedback to bridge the gap between praise and criticism is a delicate process, but can yield great results if done in just the right way. Any parent or teacher can tell a small business owner or manager that using constructive criticism properly can make all the difference going forward. However, organizations of all sizes, all over the world, struggle with delivering and receiving feedback well.
Appreciation, Coaching, Evaluation
In the first instance, children show us the importance of appreciation. “Mom, look at me,” is a call for recognition that we carry with us into our adult lives. Coaching comes next in the learning process, followed by evaluation. As small business owners, we must focus on evaluation, a learning and growing process that is more sophisticated than simply grading, scoring or rating an employee. Remember that the point of your critical conversation is to motivate an employee to improve their performance, and to identify and correct any issue that may be impacting the organization. Consider three easy-to-remember ways you can steer a discussion about performance to get the very best results.
1. Focus praise on actions
Keep the emphasis off the person by focusing on actions. We all have a need for being appreciated for the way we are, so don’t shut a conversation down by confusing the person’s work with his or her personality. Use the sandwich approach by giving a compliment, then criticism, followed by another compliment. Deliver plenty of positive feedback and you may be surprised at how much this helps employees accept the idea for necessary improvements. Identify the issue — just the issue — you’d like to discuss with your employee. It can be a challenge to identify the problem clearly without talking about the person, but this management skill is paramount to giving constructive criticism. From the employee’s point of view, it leaves the door open for a discussion of improvement without a defensive reaction.
2. Be clear and specific
In the book, “Thanks for the Feedback,” Sheila Heen and Doug Stone, co-authors and Harvard Law School lecturers, point out that actionable feedback must be clear and specific. Feedback should explain what your employee needs to do differently and most importantly why. Keep classic SMART objectives in mind as they relate to a previous employee evaluation or conversation. SMART goals are a well-established management planning tool defined as the following: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. If an employee is lacking these objectives, address the issue. Do your homework before meeting, get out from behind your desk and pull up a couple of chairs around a table to level the playing field. Always ensure your conversation takes place in a private setting.
3. Ask and encourage questions
Listen carefully. The key to constructive criticism actually being constructive for employee performance is having high quality conversations. Ask questions. Do employees know their goals and have the goals been properly articulated? Is there something preventing an employee from reaching their goals? When giving feedback, both the past and the future are important factors. Explain what happened last quarter and how the next quarter should look. Then discuss three ways it can be done.
Finally, it’s a two-way street. Accepting employee feedback with an open mind is crucial in a small business setting. Ensure that you end your conversation with a compliment to get the most out of delivering constructive criticism to your employees.