In his book, Winning, Jack Welch points to a lack of candor in corporate America.
One thing that is critical in any company that is determined to grow, learn, and prosper is a culture with the courage to criticize. Although seldom fun for the person doing it – or for the one on the receiving end – in life, and certainly in business, we need to criticize the actions of others when the time calls.
If we allow people to continue doing the wrong things, we tend to resent their actions and inwardly hold it against them. So how do you criticize others without creating a lifelong enemy or resentment for having done so? What are the tactful ways to constructively criticize? Here are some suggestions for delivering criticism without being offensive, rude, or having it be perceived as a personal attack:
1. Tone of voice. It has been researched that 70% of a conversation is conveyed through tone of voice and facial expressions. In contrast, words can often be an insignificant aspect if your criticism of someone’s behavior is not expressed carefully. Avoid sarcasm, anger, hostility, and especially condescension. Speak in a polite, friendly and natural way. Even if you feel the person deserves sarcasm or outright anger, your reaction will only create a defensive posture. However, if you criticize in a thoughtful way, they are more likely to be sympathetic to your point of view. By the way, most people find it difficult to criticize when faced with a smile. Subconsciously, it tends to diffuse tension and relaxes while creating a positive vibration in others.
2. “I made the exact same mistake myself.” Even if it doesn’t improve the situation and even if it’s not true, criticism becomes much more humane if you have somehow made the same blunder yourself. So, comments such as, “In your situation, I would have done the exact same thing, but . . .” or “Having been in that situation, I have done the exact same thing, but . . .” work because they prevent us from developing a superior attitude. Although you are pointing out a mistake, you are also softening it by acknowledging that others have also made the same mistake. This is particularly useful with new employees as they are often nervous and surely to make mistakes. Be careful not to point out constant failures and de-motivate them, but by emphasizing that it was a mistake, but one that is easily made, you correct without the misery.
3. Pick your fights. Stay focused on criticizing things that are truly important. Minor infractions and small mistakes pale in comparison to much more serious financial, physical or reputational ones. Tolerance and enthusiasm for learning are seldom seen as major personality flaws. (I promise the sky will not fall if those pens are not placed in the right bins. Stop being so anal!)
4. Change their behavior without actually criticizing them. It’s amazing how often suggesting the right way appeals to their positive nature vs. constantly highlighting what is wrong. Offer positive solutions that imply criticism, but result in doing the right thing, which is really the desired end result.
5. Praise modifications made during and after the criticism. If you continue to look for good qualities and point out the good things that come from the criticizing process and resulting modifications in behaviors, processes and practices, you will elevate productivity (the desired result) even if it is through false flattery. I have seen an interesting example of a manager who guilts individuals into trying harder by praising a job less than well done to others. This passive aggressive way of criticizing – by praising someone falsely – creates the awareness that they really didn’t do that good of a job.