The best way to find out which category they're in is through asking questions and listening.
Let's look at some of the reasons this passive approach to problem-solving is good for both of you.
1. Your Employees Already Know the Answer
Most of the time, if you ask a good employee how they're doing, they'll tell you.
They'll apply to themselves the criticism you intended to give them in the first place.
I recently hired someone I've known for many years: a march-to-the-beat-of-different-drummer type whose unconventional style made him a risk, even as it promised the possibility of the atypical thinking I wanted.
After he joined our team, I approached him once or twice in a joking way and said, "Don't do anything crazy--don't do anything that'll make me fire you."
He looked at me puzzled each time, laughed, and assured me that he planned on keeping his job.
One day, during a face-to-face, I tried a different tactic. I asked: "If things didn't work out for you here, why do you think that would be?"
His response was immediate, specific and spot-on. He thanked me for asking and said that he'd been genuinely confused by my more aggressive approach before. He'd wondered if I was accusing him of something and clammed up.
The moment I put the ball in his court through a frank and affectionate question, the answer struck home.
2. Self-Discovery Is Therapeutic; Criticism Is the Opposite
Talking through difficulties and figuring out solutions on your own is much more powerful and lasting than having it bluntly explained by your boss.
Force-feeding criticism is the lazy approach to communication. You might think you're just a hard-nosed realist uninterested in listening to an employee cry into their beer, but this is a cop-out.
Communication is hard. It gets easier when you start peeling back the onion on the people you're trying to communicate with. You feel more invested in them and they in you.
Let's say you try talking a valued employee through a problem and they still can't see the solution. What next?
At that point, you can nudge them into it. They were almost home anyway, and giving them a little bump over the finish line isn't going to sting nearly as much as if they'd been dragged there from the starting blocks.
3. Sometimes a Problem Is a Symptom of Something Else
If you really want to frustrate someone and ruin their efficiency, criticize them over something they can't control, but which you mistakenly believe they can.
For example, one of your employees is behaving in a way you find undesirable and you just charge in, guns blazing, and order them to stop.
It could be that their manager is a complete jerk, their team dysfunctional and their environment toxic.
You're blaming them for something beyond their control. Even if you discover the truth later on and apologize, the damage has been done.
4. Sometimes You're Wrong
I try to enter every sensitive conversation assuming either a) I'm mistaken, or b) there's a misunderstanding.
If you're the boss, the temptation is to always be talking. You've got a captive audience, so it's easy to surrender to your ego's insistence that one of your main duties is to dole out wisdom and advice.
Doling out wisdom and advice based on false premises will leave you looking foolish in front of your employees and undermine trust in your leadership.
A saying that every leader should learn by heart applies here: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."
Look before you leap. Listen before you open your mouth and deliver criticism unfettered by facts. You'll learn more that way, look smarter in the process and avoid unforced errors.
There are times when forthright criticism and intervention are called for, but these are rare. No leader should hesitate to confront bad behavior, just like no leader should hesitate to fire a bad actor for the sake of the team and the business.
On most occasions, real-time communication, asking questions and listening to the answers are your best bet.
Either your employees will resolve things on their own or you'll help guide them to a resolution. Ideally, you'll realize there was nothing to resolve.
After that, only one thing remains to be said: "OK, good, they've got it. Now I can shut my yap."