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How to criticise other people constructively

1. Quotable quote

"Criticism is not only recognition, proof of the boss’s concern; it can be a vital learning experience for both boss and subordinate - Criticism can provide an occasion for growth and development, provided it is not the only thing subordinates hear from their boss. But it must be used thoughtfully if it is to serve as an incentive."

Person to Person Managing.

2. Here's an idea

If you have a problem doling out criticism, here’s a useful management strategy to try - lead the employees into criticising themselves.

Here’s how it works: Most employees know if they are doing something wrong, or not performing up to standards. Call them in and say: ‘Tell me one thing about your job that you’re satisfied with right now, and then tell me something about your performance you’re not happy with.’

Nine times out of ten, the employees will single out the poor performance issue, and start talking about it. If they don’t, your next question should be: ‘Are you happy with your performance on the . . . .’ Let employees open the discussion, and then work with them on ways to improve.

3. Smile & ponder

Two taxidermists stopped before a shop window in which an owl was displayed.

They immediately began to criticise the way it was mounted. Its eyes were not natural; its wings were not in proportion with its head; its beak was too pointed; its feathers were not neatly arranged; and its feet were too small…

When they had finished with their criticism, the owl turned its head - and winked at them.

Until we know all, we should not pass judgement at all. As Benjamin Disraeli once said: It’s so much easier to be critical than to be correct.

4. Here's an idea

If criticism isn’t constructive, it will do more harm than good - the employee will resent your comments and you, as the manager, will lose a valuable opportunity to teach the employee something.

For this reason, every time you have to criticise a staff member, write down at least two suggestions on how that employee might fix the problem at hand or improve performance. Take those ideas with you to the meeting and focus your attention on them, rather than the criticism itself.

5. The vanishing trick

A magician was sailing the Pacific shortly after World War II, entertaining the passengers aboard a luxury liner. With each amazing feat of magic, a parrot belonging to the captain and chained to a nearby perch, would squawk, 'Faker! Faker!'

No matter what the magician did- rabbits out of hats, vanishing doves, disappearing goldfish bowls and all - the parrot would criticise his act and repeatedly cry, 'Faker! Faker!'

The magician and his parrot critic became bitter enemies.

On the final night of the voyage, so the story goes, the magician promised the audience that he would perform a trick that would out-Houdini Houdini. The wand was waved, the 'woofle dust' was sprinkled - and 'woofle!!'…

At that very moment the ship hit a floating mine and it was blown to pieces.

Next morning, aboard a make-shift life raft, the parrot was perched at one end, the magician at the other. Finally the parrot hopped over, and said: 'Ok buddy, you win. What the devil did you do with the ship?'

The point of the story is that, as managers, we have to be able to silence our critics without going overboard or damaging our own reputation.

6. Honking the horn of criticism

A young woman was driving to work at morning rush hour. The light turned red as she approached the intersection and she came to a screeching stop. Her car stalled.

As she desperately tried to restart her car, the light turned back to green. A truck approached behind her and the driver began honking the horn. Through one light change, and a second, the young woman nervously pumped the accelerator and turned the ignition - and the truck driver continued to honk his horn.

Frustrated by her inability to get the car going again, and the impatience of the truck driver behind her, she calmly got out of the car and walked back to the truck. As he opened the window, she politely said to the truck driver: 'If you will start my car for me, I would be happy to continue honking your horn for you.'

And so it is with criticism.

We can honk our horns of criticism as long as we want - but it rarely changes the situation or the people involved. All it does is make negative emotions surface or explode.

As Abraham Lincoln said: 'You only have a right to criticise if you have a heart to help.'

7. A slap in the face

Did you know that criticising someone's idea during a meeting can be as harmful to that person as physically striking him or her?

A group of United States consultants, who advise organisations on how to make discussions more creative, are convinced that personal antagonism is the main cause of unproductive meetings. They reached this view after studying dozens of tape and video recordings of meetings.

One of their major findings was that meeting participants are often unnecessarily antagonistic towards the ideas of others. The person who offers the idea tends to view this antagonism as a personal attack. This in turn causes conflict which is not at all conducive to producing good ideas.

The consultants proved their point by carrying out an experiment with a psychogalvanometer. In the course of a meeting, the subject whose fingers were connected to electrodes, was deliberately criticised. The pointer on the psychogalvanometer rose to a level it had reached when the same subject had been physically slapped earlier. So it seems that criticism can come as something of a blow - literally.

Which is why there is sense in being able to criticise people constructively.

8. Never criticise first thing in the morning

Management experts agree that you shouldn't hand out criticism first thing in the morning. It's counterproductive. Most employees - even people with great work habits - will brood after receiving criticism. They'll also go through a period where they start to doubt their abilities and judgment. If you criticise first thing in the morning, you run the risk that the employee will be distracted enough to waste the day - or at least not be in top form. It's important not to criticise at the very end of the day, either. You don't want an employee brooding about work problems at home. Try for a time during the middle of the day - which gives the employee enough time to work through the criticism before going home, and still allows for a productive morning.

9. Softening criticism

Instead of telling someone, 'You blew it!', try taking them calmly through a series of questions (implying that you don't have all the answers yourself): 'Did you ever consider…?', 'What if you had told Mr Smith…?' Usually this results in something of a Socratic dialogue and your colleague reaches the desired conclusion - and thinks it's his or her idea.

Obviously, if you are enraged and the cords are standing out on your neck, this approach doesn't have a prayer of success. Anger has its uses, but rarely when your purpose is constructive criticism.

The inept use of criticism is among the most common causes of conflict in the workplace… It is often more effective to make your views known in ways so subtle that people don't know they are being criticised.

10. A meaningful moment

The act of criticism often takes from the tree caterpillars and blossoms together.

11. The tower of dominoes

Joseph Enders, the successful British businessman, says that the best lesson he ever had was when he was a boy and his father told him to build a tower of dominoes. He did so.

'Now,' said his father, 'knock it down.' It immediately fell in a heap.

'You see,' observed his father, 'how much better it looked when it was standing? Always be a builder, not a knocker-down!'

Good advice for all, surely, and a vital message for those of us whose role demands that we 'criticise' the work of others.

12. The seed

A little seed lay in the ground
And soon began to sprout;
Now, which of all the flowers aroiund,
Shall I, it mused, come out?
The seed then reasoned: 'I don't care to be a rose; it has thorns. I have no desire to be a lily; it's too colourless. And I certainly wouldn't want to be a violet; it's too small and, furthermore, it grows too close to the ground.'
And so it criticised each flower,
That supercilious seed,
Until it woke one summer hour
And found itself a weed!

13. Worth repeating

If it's painful for you to criticise your friends, you're safe in doing it; if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that's the time to hold your tongue. -Alice Duer Miller

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. -Frank A. Clark

Rare is the person who can weigh the faults of others without putting his thumb on the scales. -Byron J. Langenfield

What we all tend to complain about most in other people are those things we don't like about ourselves. - William Wharton

When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that three of his fingers are pointing at himself.

It is much easier to be critical than correct. -Benjamin Disraeli

I will not judge my brother until I have walked two weeks in his moccasins. - Sioux Indians

Deal with the faults of others as gently as your own. -Chinese proverb

There is something wrong with a man, as with a motor, when he knocks too often.

Don't find fault; find a remedy. - Henry Ford

Be patient with the faults of others; they have to be patient with yours.

Chinese proverb

14. Self-criticism

Whatever you have to say to people, be sure to say it in words that will cause them to smile, and you will be on pretty safe ground. And when you do find it necessary to criticise someone, put your criticism in the form of a question which the other fellow is practically sure to have to answer in a manner that he becomes his own critic.

John Wanamaker

15. Quiet criticism

John Wanamaker was a king of US retail. One day while walking through his store in Philadelphia, he noticed a customer waiting for assistance. No one was paying the least bit of attention to her.

Looking around, he saw his salespeople huddled together laughing and talking among themselves. Without a word, he quietly slipped behind the counter and waited on the customer himself. Then he quietly handed the purchase to the salespeople to be wrapped as he went away.

Later, Wanamaker was quoted as saying: 'I learned thirty years ago that it is foolish to scold and criticise. I have enough trouble overcoming my own limitations without fretting over the fact that the Almighty has not seen fit to distribute evenly the gift of intelligence.'