The Secret to Giving Constructive Criticism – The Focus on Behaviors
In my experience, most business owners and managers don’t find it too difficult to give constructive criticism on the quantifiable element of their employee’s performance. They don’t find it too tough to say something like
‘We agreed you would produce 30 units a day. This record shows you’re producing 20. Can you agree there’s a problem here with your performance?’
What many managers find much more challenging is giving constructive criticism on the unquantifiable elements of the employee’s performance
This is how managers often describe this type of issue to me:
- He’s got a poor attitude
- She lacks confidence
- He’s not a team player
- She’s arrogant
Clearly it’s not too hard to see the problem managers have with raising these types of issue. It is difficult to see a conversation going well based on an opening line
‘I want to talk to you about your attitude. It stinks’ (and if you think I’ve made that last statement up, I’m sorry to say I haven’t.)
How to give Constructive Criticism
The first step in giving constructive criticism is to focus on behaviors, and only the behaviors. What you will notice from our manager’s statements above is that they are talking about the employee’s characteristics or personality traits. As you may have noticed from your own experience, criticising a person’s characteristics or personality traits very rarely works well. Like never. Specifically criticizing behaviors is much more likely to be understood and accepted. Here’s why:
1. Behaviors vs. Characteristics or Personality Traits
When an employee receives criticism on their behaviors they generally ‘hear’ it on the cognitive or intellectual level (‘in the head’.)
When they receive criticism of their characteristics or personality they generally ‘hear’ that on the emotional level (’in the heart’.)
Criticism based on our behaviors is easier to accept than than criticiism of our personality or characteristics because it is based on:
- what we do
- who we are.
Also, although most people believe they can change what they do. Very few people believe they can change who they are.
A couple of examples:
A) If I were to say to you "When you turn up late to team briefings it causes a problem" (Behavior.)
It would probably feel easier to accept than if I were to say
"Your lack of commitment to the team is causing a problem" (Characteristic / Personality trait.)
B) "When you interrupt me in front of a client it causes a problem" (Behavior.)
Would probably feel easier to accept than
"Your arrogance is causing a problem" (Characteristic /Personality trait.)
So, criticism based on behaviors is both a) depersonalised and b) focused on the belief that the person can change. This makes it easier to accept and consequently easier to give (and that’s what makes it constructive criticism – with the emphasis on ‘constrictive’)
2. Facts vs. Assumptions
The second reason is that it’s easier to give criticism on behaviors is because it is based on facts not assumptions.
A) When I talk about you turning up late for a meeting – that’s a fact
When I talk about your lack of commitment – that’s an assumption
B) When I talk about there being three errors in the report you gave me – that’s a fact
When I talk about your lack of interest in your work – that’s an assumption
The reality is I can’t actually know what your level of commitment or interest in your work is – I can only assume, or guess, based on my interpretation of your behaviors.
But it is assumption and it is guesswork and, putting aside any moral objection you might have to making assumptions about a person, assumptions can be argued against and facts cannot. And that’s why it’s a problem.
Have you ever said to anyone ‘You just don’t listen!’?
Have you ever had the following response?
‘Your assumption that I don’t listen to you is absolutely correct. I rarely, if ever, pay attention to anything anyone else says. Thank you for pointing this out to me. I shall now endeavour to hang on to every word you say.’
Not likely is it? Criticizing characteristics or personality trait will generally be met with an argument
|‘You don’t listen.’||‘I do’|
|‘You’re not committed enough.’||‘I am’|
And so it goes on
When you focus on behaviors you can give examples:
‘Yesterday you came to the meeting 20 minutes late.’
‘There were three errors in the report you gave me.’
What examples give you is objectivity – because you’re talking about facts – and criticism based that is seen as being objective is always easier to understand and accept
Read more on how to give constructive criticism at ‘How to give constructive criticism using A>R>C’
A summary of the benefits of focusing on behaviors (and why it makes for constructive criticism)
a) It depersonalises the criticism as much as is possible – it’s not about the person. It is
about what they do or have done
b) Most people believe they can change what they do. Very few people believe they can
change who they are
c) It’s difficult to disagree with facts. It’s easy to disagree with assumption
d) Facts bring objectivity. Objective criticism is easier to accept and easier to give
Would you like to know more about how to effectively manage your employees? Would you also like to read about the 5 classic mistakes that could be getting in the way of ‘effective management’ (and what to do about them!)?
Then claim your copy of my special report ‘Boost Your Business Performance through Effective Employee Management’ HERE