“A microscope of faith is far better than a telescope of criticism” (Anon)
While helpful feedback is aimed at improving or enhancing the performance of an employee or team and accelerating business results as a whole, such manager conversations often deteriorate into criticism, which is loosely defined as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes”. Like the term “brickbat”, it is sometimes used to mean “an unfavourable criticism, unkind remark or sharp put-down”, producing less than favourable responses. In essence, when employees receive criticism, they frequently take the message personally and feel that their characters are being attacked.
Kate Nasser, a people skills coach, helpfully notes eight ways that criticism of employees can come across as contempt and scorn, viz. when managers:
- Use demeaning words instead of objective observations about their work. Example of contempt: “Why am I even paying you?” Making employees feel worthless won’t make them work harder. Don’t degrade employees. Coach instead of diminishing who they are.
- Show prejudice. Prejudice, racism, sexism, etc… show contempt for others. Moreover, when you say racist or sexist things in your criticism of employees, they will hear your contempt for who they are as people. Rethink criticism and any biases you may have. Valuable criticism is founded in explicit observations of behaviours and actions they can change. Your disdain is of no value to them.
- Nit-pick. If you are constantly criticising employees for the littlest things, they will hear contempt for who they are. If you expect perfection or struggle with obsessive compulsive behaviour yourself, rethink criticism and how you give it. Employees may well hear contempt when you didn’t even intend it.
- Use sarcasm when giving them feedback. Sarcasm sounds disdainful. Don’t use it. Speak with care and honesty. Leave the sarcasm to the insult comedians in the world.
- Compare them to other employees you admire. Not only does this sound like contempt, but it also crushes teamwork and morale. Coach each employee. Don’t set them up against each other.
- Think it’s your right to toughen employees up. They will hear contempt for who they are as you focus on being tough on them. If you were in the military and officers did that to you, don’t do it to employees in business. They are not in the military, and neither are you anymore.
- Consider emotion and emotional intelligence a bunch of bunk. You may pride yourself on being unemotional and super logical, yet you are leading human beings. If you tell them they are being overly emotional, they will hear this as contempt. Better to understand where the emotion is coming from and then help them find a path forward. Empathy leads better than scorn.
- Yell and scream at them. Unless there is a life and death emergency that requires it, yelling at employees is futile. Most freeze up and later see you as an ineffective leader. Fear does not engage employee talents; respect, trust, and honesty do.
Unlike criticism, constructive or developmental feedback attempts to maintain the dignity of the employee whilst, at the same time, encourages behaviour changes that will lead to better results. A culture of giving and receiving feedback should be created in the organisation where both managers and employees learn the skills necessary for these conversations. As the Indeed editorial team notes: “A feedback culture is important because it provides employees with regular and consistent information about how well they are performing their jobs. When that does not happen, the employees are probably not going to give the employer any healthy feedback either. This can result in a false sense that everything is fine, and no improvement is needed. Productive and invested employees may leave the company because they do not have a gauge of whether they are meeting expectations or not. Constructive ‘criticism’ is an important vehicle for bringing these problems to the surface.”
So, what does constructive developmental feedback entail? Amongst others, it includes (some from Entrepreneur):
- Focusing on the problem, not the person. Don’t make statements that personally call out the employee like, “you should,” “you didn’t,” or “your skills.” Instead, discuss the issue by saying, “customers can’t get what they need,” or “this isn’t clear.”
- Discuss what is going well. Compliment the employee on her strengths. Encourage the employee to do more of what she already knows how to do well. Then, when you give the necessary developmental feedback, the employee won’t feel like everything she does is wrong.
- Present the data. Employees need a visual to understand the concern. A visual performance report can help demonstrate issues with data to help everyone understand the big picture goals.
- Relate to the employee’s level. Don’t talk down to the employee, as if he is less intelligent because his performance is suffering. Try to find the source of the problem. Relate to the employee by sharing a personal story about a similar problem and explain how it was resolved.
- Reaffirm faith in the employee. Express the importance of the employee’s valuable skills and assure him he will improve. Remind him he was hired for a reason. Feedback will only make him stronger, as long as he channels it into accomplishing his goals.
Managers need to rethink criticism. Applying developmental feedback techniques not only facilitates enhanced performance, but it also develops a culture where continuous improvement is embraced. Invested employees thrive in such an environment. Deploy the microscope of faith in employees.