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How to Criticize Employees: 6 Rules

Sometimes a kick in the butt can be more effective than a pat on the back.
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Even if you're an experienced executive, it's likely you often find it very difficult to tell other people where they need to improve. Praising a good performance is easy; everyone likes to receive a compliment. But what do you do when a kick in the butt seems more appropriate than a pat on the back? Here's how to do this effectively:

1. Treat criticism as a form of feedback.

The term "criticism," while accurate, carries the baggage of negativity. By contrast, the term "feedback" implies the participation of both parties--a two-way give and take where both people learn and grow. Feedback is an opportunity for mutual growth. You learn by getting feedback, and you learn by giving feedback. The moment you reposition your criticism into the context of feedback, both you and your employee will feel more relaxed and receptive.

2. Provide criticism on an ongoing basis.

Many bosses delay criticism until an employee's yearly performance review. That's ineffective, because the employee will be so concerned with money issues that he or she won't be able to concentrate on personal growth. Remember: Reviews are about salaries; criticism (i.e., feedback) is about developing the employee. This entails paying attention to the employee's behavior, stepping into the employee's shoes, appreciating his or her experience, and helping to move that employee into a learning mode.

3. Dole out criticism in small doses.

If you stockpile problems, waiting for the "right moment" to bring them up, chances are the employee will simply be overwhelmed. Criticism is best given real time or immediately after the fact. Don't wait until problems fester. The very best time to provide criticism is whenever somebody is making positive progress but there's still room for improvement. Rule of thumb: Balance out every criticism with seven honest compliments.

4. Begin by asking questions.

Your goal is not (or should not be) to persuade employees to do things the way that YOU would do them. Instead, dig deeper and find the roots of the specific problem. Ask questions, such as: "Why do you approach this situation in this way?" "How could we have done better?" and "What do you think could use improvement?" Such questions lead employees to discover their own solutions and their own insights.

5. Listen, acknowledge, and learn.

You may think that you understand what's going on and why something happened, but you might easily be wrong. When you listen to an employee and acknowledge what he or she has to say, you learn about the world from that employee's point of view. That in turn gives you more understanding of the employee's motivations and desires, which in turn helps you to better understand how to help him or her change his or her behavior.

6. Address the behavior, not the person.

Never say something like "You're unreliable! You've been late three times this week !" Instead, address the behavior that's troubling, like so: "You're usually punctual, but this week you've been late three times. What's up?" Similarly, when you want to change a behavior, don't address it as a personality issue. Asking "What can you do to become more reliable?" is a dead end. What's more likely to work is something like: "What can you do to ensure you'll be on time more often?"

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IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Nov 20, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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