Feedback. We all give it...and we all wish we could give it more effectively.
In 1964, when he was a sophomore at Lisbon Falls High School in Maine, a 17-year-old Stephen King worked as a sportswriter for a local newspaper. After turning in his first piece--a recap of a basketball game--his editor cut out nearly half of it, chastising King for overwriting.
"I took my fair share of English Lit classes in my two remaining years at Lisbon, and my fair share of composition, fiction, and poetry classes in college, but John Gould [the editor] taught me more about any of them, in no more than 10 minutes," King wrote in his autobiography, On Writing.
King would go on to sell over 350 million books, all while remembering that lesson to omit all the unnecessary words. And while there are a lot of reasons for King's success, Gould's pointed, unabashed criticism certainly played a part.
Leaders have the same opportunity to do for their employees what Gould did for King: provide powerful, constructive criticism that can drastically improve their performance.
So how can you effectively critique performance? Here are some rules to live by:
1. Give Only One Criticism for Every 5.6 Compliments
A study by the Harvard Business Review of 60 business units found that the best ones had a compliment-to-criticism ratio of 5.6 to 1, or 5.6 compliments for every one criticism. (Or as my dad used to say, "It takes five pats on the back to make up for one 'Aw, [poop].'"--Jeff)
Why? The study concluded that criticism can serve as a "whack on the side of the head," i.e., a great way to change a behavior. But if it is used too often--much like a whack on the head--it does little more than make the employee useless.
Compliments and recognition are key to building morale. The effectiveness of criticism, meanwhile, has an inverse correlation with its use: The more it's used, the less effective it becomes.
2. Criticize Behavior, Not the Person
When you do criticize someone, it's crucial not to make a generic gripe about their character--"You're unreliable"--but instead a specific complaint about their behavior--"Two times in the past month, your work has been submitted late."
The reason why is, if you specifically point out the behavior you want an employee to change, they then can change it. In the example above, for instance, they can make getting work in on time a priority.
However, if you just call them "unreliable" and give them no real direction, what are they going to do? Probably just go on being unreliable. After all, isn't that what you said they are?
3. Don't Wait for the Performance Review
Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle, wrote a piece in 2012 for The New York Times explaining why he got rid of the performance review. His reasoning was simple: Why should I wait until an annual meeting to give an employee feedback when I should be giving feedback all along?
That's a very sensible argument. In fact, pushing back criticism until performance reviews or, worse, not giving it at all, is a clear indication of passive-aggressive management.
If you have an issue with an employee, you need to let him or her know. Otherwise, you are wasting valuable time that employees could use for improving themselves.
4. Make the Business Case for Change
A key principle of effective business is transparency--showing your entire work force what the business's goals are and how you plan to achieve them. (A great example is Buffer, a company that has embraced transparency to an extreme degree.) The reason companies do this is, when employees have a holistic view of the organization, they can act more strategically.
The same rule should be applied to criticism. Tell the employee not only what behavior needs to be changed (purchase orders aren't sent out in a timely matter) but also the business reason it needs to be changed (the longer a customer has to wait for a purchase order, the less chance they'll sign off on it).
Often, when a person is criticized, they have a tendency to think you, the manager, have some sort of personal vendetta against them. If you can show them the business reason for the criticism, it becomes clear that the motivation for the critique is professional, not personal.
The Bottom Line
Part of being a great manager is giving effective criticism. If an employee doesn't know what they are doing poorly, they can never improve.
That said, criticism is dangerous medicine, and if used too much, can kill the patient (metaphorically). But if used effectively, it can absolutely make the difference between a good employee and a great one.
Just ask Stephen King.