The Art of Criticism: Giving a Message Without Ruining the Relationship

By Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent D. O’Connell

“Used artfully, feedback on competencies can be a priceless tool for self-examination and for cultivating change and growth. Used poorly, it can be an emotional bludgeon.” Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.

Most managers prefer “the carrot” to “the stick” in supervising work performance.

Motivating employees through positive reinforcement is usually far less of a managerial challenge than having to criticize or, in worse-case scenarios, having to take disciplinary action for errors, omissions, or other sub-par work performance. Yet few managers escape the requirement to address situations when criticism of a subordinate is warranted and a necessary part of maintaining a productive workforce.

It’s hard to be critical of someone’s performance

The managerial challenge in criticizing an employee’s performance is part internal and part external. The internal challenge involves gathering the mental courage to confront a subordinate with the performance problem.

Courage is needed because of the external part of the challenge: the other person’s typical defensive and emotional reaction to the criticism.

Let’s face it: It is not easy being on the receiving end of an encounter in which the message is that performance is poor or that an avoidable mistake has been made.

In addition to engendering defensiveness, the entire process of being criticized can be hurtful and discouraging. Depending on the criticized person’s personality and what psychologists call his or her ego strength — the innate sense of oneself, or self-worth — the encounter is likely to make the criticized person feel angry, anxious, depressed, or all of the above. We refer to this as the emotional fallout of criticism that managers can control with superior people skills.

Emotional fallout of poorly executed criticism

Counterproductive, even pathological behavior of disgruntled employees whose work has been criticized can be symptomatic of this “emotional fallout.” For example, the criticized employee’s behavior may include:

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  • Withdrawing from a group or team, or becoming uncommunicative with the criticizing supervisor.
  • “Acting out,” or engaging in attention-getting behavior, intended to exact some direct or indirect retribution for the critical remarks.
  • Acting “passive-aggressively,” or trying to be hurtful to the manager or overall organization through inaction or inertia.
  • Feeling insecure and less decisive, bringing other departments to a standstill.
  • Manifesting inappropriate anger that creates more frequent disagreements and conflicts.
  • Engaging in “splitting,” or trying to create factions for and against the supervisor.
  • Becoming demoralized about working for the company, because of disappointment in the overall organization for sanctioning the criticism.
  • Resigning from the organization. This can be a costly result of an incident of performance criticism, particularly when the chastised employee is valuable in many ways and resignation is avoidable.

How can criticism be “artful?”

By definition, artful managerial behavior entails well-considered, creative responses to difficult interpersonal situations involving the supervision of someone else’s work deficiencies. To be more artful, as opposed to being focused only on the problem and the deficiencies that engendered the problem, managerial criticism needs to involve:

  • Building an experienced view of how interpersonal communication can be molded to particular circumstances — sometimes referred to as “finesse.” Performance criticism requires a keen assessment not just of the problematic issue, but of the type of person with whom a corrective discussion will need to take place.
  • Balancing the importance of the message being delivered (such as, that the performance needs improvement) with the importance of delivering it in a way that does not undermine the feedback but rather encourages its acceptance and creates motivation for the desired performance improvement.
  • Resisting rash, impulsive, demeaning attacks. An artful approach is thoughtful, not reactive.
  • Expanding one’s personal skills for motivating human behavior and approaching management tasks with empathy.

Being critical and building the relationship

Indeed, an artful, creative approach to workplace communication considers ways to understand and respond to the unique circumstances of the other person — our working definition of empathy — and how to best use insights gleaned from empathic exchanges in order to achieve the desired supervisory objectives.

The art involved in this process lies in getting the corrective message across in a way that does not subvert the supervisory relationship and may actually offer opportunities for the relationship to grow stronger moving forward.

As the saying goes, “Out of crisis, there lies opportunity.”

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from 9 POWERFUL PRACTICES OF REALLY GREAT BOSSES, copyright 2013 Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent D. O’Connell. Published by Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.

Stephen Kohn is president of Work & People SolutionsWork & People Solutions, a prominent human resources management, leadership development and executive coaching firm. Kohn is also an adjunct professor of management at Long Island University. Vincent D. O'Connell is Asia regional director for international training and performance management consultants Globecon Institute. O'Connell splits his time between McLean, Virginia, and Bangkok, Thailand.

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1 Comment on “The Art of Criticism: Giving a Message Without Ruining the Relationship

  1. If feedback, both positive and negative, is given on a regular basis it makes criticism a little easier. It becomes part of the process and less of an event.

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