Manager’s Corner: An Alternative to Constructive Criticism

Oct 9, 2009

Constructive criticism is a myth. If it really worked, we would all be perfect by now.

Remember the last time someone gave you constructive criticism?

Were you motivated to improve and take their advice or was it just plain awful and you couldn’t wait for that moment to end? The motive to point out your “deficit” was probably well-intentioned, but the method of delivery usually ends up developing into a deficit itself.

Consider how you give constructive criticism to your employees when you see an area in them that needs to be improved.

“Why can’t they just take my advice?” you ask yourself when you give feedback. You might not visibly see the harm in how you do it, but the veiled and valid emotions that swell up in your subordinates clouds their perspective. The feelings of anger, self-doubt, and insecurity overpower and overshadow any logical desire to improve. The result is a frustrated employee, a frustrated manager, and a deficit that needs improvement.

So how can we as managers communicate with our employees in a way that gets the point across without getting them angry?

How can we get them to see their areas of weakness and instill within them a desire to improve?

To find the answer, I went straight to the source: Dr. Kenneth Christian, author of Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement and founder of the Maximum Potential Project.

I asked Dr. Christian, a corporate management consultant and former practicing psychologist, the best way that a manager can help an employee overcome a deficit. In other words, what is the model of a ‘tough love’ conversation that a manager can follow when a performance issue needs to be addressed?

First, he says, develop the approach. Tell your employee that your motive is to develop him and to take him to a new level in his career. Say:

“I want to take you somewhere you haven’t been before in terms of your performance. If I could work with you and we could help you to get to a whole other level, would you explore working with me on (area of deficit) and see how far you could go?”

Second, reaffirm the confidence that you have in them. Dr. Christian says to tell your employees that you see something special in them, something that is above normal.

Tell them this:

“I know you can go farther and that you hold a strong presence of future success. I want to help you get there.”

Third, work with them in appraising their strengths. Ask them the questions that cause them to find out what it is that causes them to excel. Specifically, what is their value as a member of your team? Why are they able to perform well in certain key areas? Then move to the soft spots in their performance. Specifically, what are those areas that need improvement? Ask them the questions and let them tell you. People usually are cognizant of their weaknesses. By being the leader they can trust, they can admit them to you and together you come up with a plan of overcoming them.

Finally, help them leave behind that old identity they have of themselves and introduce them to the new identity of stronger performance. Include a big upside of what happens when they reach that new level of performance. Help them become comfortable with their success. Be very clear and specific about the upside benefit of this new level of performance to help increase their motivation to achieve at that level.

By following this model of thought and communication, you will build trust, develop a commitment to improve, and most important, create a safe place to discuss areas of weakness.

Your employees may never become perfect, but at least they’ll take ownership of their weaknesses and will eagerly embrace a plan for improvement.