First, let me deal with the word ‘criticism’, often a word that gets associated with the idea of a ‘difficult conversation’. While some may say that they ‘welcome criticism’, in practice few really do, and as such it’s rarely a positive experience. What might actually be welcome to the majority of people is helpful and well-considered, constructive feedback and guidance.
Turning criticism into feedback
Replacing the word ‘criticism’ with the word feedback, and actually meaning it, is usually a very positive step for any leader or manager, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.
The challenge then for the person giving the feedback is to shape how the information is received, and what the recipient does with the information. By that I mean the spirit in which they ‘hear it’, and the degree to which they are motivated to a) accept it as valid and b) change their behavior or performance as a result.
To this end, it really matters what they think the information is for, and why they feel it is being given. If it is perceived as a ‘dressing down’ or old-fashioned rollicking, most people will either move to ‘fight or flight’. In practice, that either means defensive – or even offensive – reactions to the ‘criticism’, or a desire to escape the situation. Neither is helpful, and so the best answer is to avoid that situation arising.
Giving help and encouragement
If the person you are giving feedback to thinks you are trying to help them, if they feel you believe in their potential, and are guiding them with the benefit of your experience, then the information will be ‘filed’ in a very different place in their mind, and will generate a very different response.
It is essential before giving feedback to have considered the purpose of the conversation, and to be absolutely clear about how you want the recipient to respond, and what you want them to do afterwards.
If the intention is to enhance performance and improve the capability of the person and the team (and it should), then that purpose is not well served by causing a row or by demotivating and demoralising them.
Equally, excessively softening or even avoiding giving the feedback is just as unhelpful. Colluding in someone’s underperformance or failing to address problems with their behaviour or performance is not helping them, and it’s letting down the team that expect you to sort the issues out for the greater good.
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Planning your feedback
When you next need to have a conversation with a team member about their performance, plan what you want to happen by thinking beforehand about the following things:
- Whose needs are being served here? Is this for the good of the recipient, the team, the organisation, its stakeholders, or you?
- How do you want them to respond during and after the conversation?
- What is the best situation and the right language to use to communicate your message?
- How are you going to ensure that they accept the validity of the feedback and your right to give it?
- Are you being sufficiently clear about the specific nature of the behaviour or performance that needs to change and why?
- Are you giving them the opportunity to engage positively in the conversation and to give or seek clarification?
- How will you follow it up later?