Criticizing Employees: How and When Great Managers Give Feedback to Their Staff

You never know what kind of answers you’re going to get when you ask an employee a personal question on a Thursday afternoon. One of my younger employees tends to dress well, so I inquired as to from where he got his sense of style. His answer didn’t disappoint.

“I initially worked at an upstart marketing company in downtown Boston,” he said. “I used to walk into work feeling confident and ready to conquer the day. Then, one day, I sat down at my desk, opened my computer, and immediately receive a message: ‘4.’”

“The women with whom I was friends decided to give my outfits a number grade each day,” he recounted. “The first day was startling, and quite harsh, but I got used to it very quickly. Not only did I get used to it, but also I began to get better and better grades. Sure, at the beginning there were a lot of ‘3’ and ‘4’ days, but as I noticed which outfits didn’t work, I began to improve. These grades, in conjunction with some basic pointers, led to me receiving grades of ‘6,’ ‘7,’ and upward, until I got my first ‘10.’ The initial embarrassment led me to throw out a lot of my shoddy outfits, something that definitely needed to happen. I thank these old coworkers all the time, as I think I’ve done quite a 180 with regard to fashion. They think so too, despite remaining harsh critics.”

You’re probably wondering how this little anecdote applies to your business. It’s simple: in today’s over-coddled society, there isn’t enough constructive criticism! One cannot change and become a better person or business leader (or dresser!) without some seemingly harsh words of criticism. The same goes for your employees, as they often need a little motivation!

Expect the Best from Employees

Remember, you’re writing the checks. If you don’t like something, be honest and upfront with your employees so that you can get some tangible results. If you don’t address an issue when it arises, it could become a major thorn in your side. If you continually ignore this issue, it will fester and possibly drive you crazy! Being blunt is difficult, especially when it’s bad news, but it’s necessary to do so.

Often, the first time you constructively criticize an employee is the hardest. Make sure you explain that you are just trying to get it right; emphasize to them the need for excellence in all areas of your business. Once they see that you’re trying to help, and not attack their work, it will become easier and easier to critique their output. You don’t have to provide a numerical grade for their outfit per se, but you need to get the point across that they can do better.

In meetings, make sure not to focus on one person. When you’re in groups, make sure that the criticism isn’t specifically targeting anyone – the affected person will know what you’re talking about. Emphasize the connected nature of your business; everyone’s output is directly linked to the overall success of the company.

While the whole point is to be direct, this can be done without being negative. The approach should be centered on making actionable requests, not simply pointing out what was done incorrectly. Positive language goes much further than its negative counterpart.

Use the Right Language

Sure, you really dislike the proposal that one of your employees put forth. But instead of using negative language like “you failed to” or “you neglected to,” it’s more effective to say “I would have done this differently,” and elaborate as to what you felt was missing from their presentation. You should suggest alternatives instead of saying “can’t,” “won’t,” or “unable to.”

This isn’t a passive-aggressive approach, it’s just a more effective way of getting your point across. Identify some of the things that they did correctly, and then target the areas in which they should improve. If you have to be negative, that’s fine, just don’t always have this be your primary method of communication. Sometimes, and often with regard to urgent matters, you need to be both blunt and negative, but this should be your last possible resort.

At the end of the day, you need to get results. Your business success hinges on the performance of your employees, and if they aren’t doing an adequate job, you need to let them know. Sometimes lighting a fire under their behind is the best way to get some great results! But, you should always emphasize that you have faith in them to do better – balance the good news with the bad!

Your employees will also react positively to criticism if you request it for… yourself!

Ask for the Honest Truth

No one wants to tell their boss that they think he or she is wrong; disagreeing with the person who writes your checks isn’t exactly the best strategy in life. But, it’s often this contrarian opinion that gets the ball rolling in the right direction. As a boss, you need to demand this type of honesty from all of your employees, even the ones with the lowest pay grade.

One way to do this is to hold a meeting and make a presentation. After you present, ask employees to provide their own feedback – emphasize that it’s critical feedback. If you don’t get a response, tell employees again that it’s an open forum and disagreement is welcome. The senior staff members will likely take this queue and provide a blunt critique, which will make other employees more comfortable.

You want to get honest feedback from employees – having a bunch of sheeple who follow you blindly isn’t an environment that will foster success. Your meetings should be Socratic in nature and everyone should be prepared to provide feedback at all times. Then, you have to consider everything without taking anything personally.

Also, feel free to get criticism from others outside of the office. If you’re in an entrepreneurial space, get the opinion of other businesspeople. It shouldn’t take much time to get some feedback – be sure to elicit some strong opinions on your ideas and request that they be as honest as possible. Try to establish some relationships where you can bounce ideas off of one another – try to make it a mutually beneficial relationship so that you can keep a criticism pipeline open.