"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots."--Frank A. Clark
"As the adage goes, 'Words are free. It's how you use them that may cost you,'" says Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of "Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results." "What you say to your employees in their annual reviews can chart a better course for their future, or demoralize them."
Words spoken by an authority figure, such as a manager or boss, are particularly impactful, she explains. "That's why it's a good idea to choose them carefully--to ensure your employees know you care about them and their performance, and to inspire them to give the best they have to offer."
Here are 14 phrases to avoid in the performance review:
'Jane can do this--why can't you?' Or, 'None of your coworkers seem to struggle with this--what's your problem?'
"Contrasting one employee against another is likely to elicit shame, envy, and resentment. Focus instead on what this employee can do differently to get a better result," says Price.
'Everything is perfect.'
Don't pretend everything is perfect.
Chances are, it's not. Even the best employees can improve on a thing or two.
If this person is doing a great job, of course you should tell them that--but then talk to figure out ways to bring them to the next level.
And if everything is not great, don't lie and say it is. Of course you want to be encouraging and acknowledge this person's achievements, but don't sugar coat everything. If you really, truly want to help this employee, you'll need to tell them what they can be doing better, and offer your support as they work to accomplish those things.
According to a 2014 Harvard Business Review study, 57% of employees like to receive negative feedback, while only 43% like hearing positive feedback only.
But make sure you go about giving negative feedback the right way.
'You always/never do X.' Or, 'Everyone thinks Y.'
"Generalities are the quickest way to put the employee on the defensive," Price explains. "Constructive feedback is specific, timely, and actionable--it's the basis for an honest beneficial performance evaluation."
'If you can't do a better job, I'll find someone who can.' Or, 'If you don't start improving in this area, you're out.'
"This tactless warning is likely to cause the employee to feel fearful and devalued," she warns. "Instead, express your belief that he or she is capable of performing at a higher level."
'I'm not sure how to help you.'
Don't fail to offer your support.
One of the worst things a manager can do is give feedback, make suggestions, and then not offer to help the employee accomplish these things.
As the boss, you're not expected to come up with solutions to every issue addressed during the review, but you should offer support, guidance, and advice to the employee as they work toward self-improvement.
'What's wrong with you?! You're the worst member on my staff.'
"Putting down your employees will not help them live up to your expectations," she says. "Terms of judgment such as 'wrong' and 'worst' are likely to embarrass your employees and hurt their feelings."
Instead, articulate your expectations in a positive, effective manner so that your employees clearly understand how to perform well on the job.
'I hope you're going to have a better year.' Or, 'I'm a little worried about you handling the XYZ account.'
Don't imply doubt.
"Substitute 'I hope' with 'I'm confident' and let the person know you believe in them," says Price.
'Okay, that's all I have to say. We're done.'
Don't do all the talking.
Don't rattle off your list of complaints, or sing the employee high praises, then kick them out. Just like a good hiring manager would do in a job interview, turn the tables at the end of the performance review and allow them to speak and ask questions. This is a crucial part of the review process and you wouldn't want to take that away from them.
'I don't have any feedback.'
Don't say nothing.
Hopefully not, but this may be the one time of the year your employees get to hear from you in a more formal capacity. Don't fail them by saying nothing. If you feel uncomfortable giving feedback--especially criticism--then you shouldn't be managing people.
Your employees want to know how they're doing. They crave feedback--good and bad--and want you to communicate your expectations. Use this time to do just that.