Giving Constructive Criticism to Employees

It seems that too few managers, and even fewer businesses, treat the performance review with the seriousness it deserves.

Does this sound familiar?   The HR department calls and says it's time for an employee's annual performance appraisal. Has it been a year already? No. It's only been a couple of months because the deadline for the last review was missed. The manager looks for last year's review only to find it has disappeared. HR provides a new form that has little relevance to the job and the manager labours over whether to rate the employee a "6" or a "7". The form goes back to HR and several weeks later a voice announces that the employee will receive a raise of between 3-4%. The manager breathes a sigh of relief knowing that the employee is motivated and inspired.

Business as usual.

It doesn't have to be this way. Properly done, giving constructive criticism and feedback should be a discipline that is customised to the individual and designed to support their career development. Instead of looking back, evaluations should be future-oriented to help build the skills and provide the direction to help your team achieve results beyond your wildest expectations.

Few leaders have mastered the art of meaningful and effective feedback. It's not always easy to be the bearer of good or bad news. But that's one of the responsibilities of being the boss. Following are some tools that will help you smooth off the rough edges:

  • Anchor feedback to mission. Indoctrinate your employees with the corporate mission and how your team supports it. You want them knowing it, living it, and chanting it. Missions, goals and objectives should feed directly into job descriptions and into performance evaluations. But it shouldn't stop there. They ought to serve as the foundation for establishing work priorities, reporting on progress, and setting meeting agendas. One of the benefits of integrating performance-based management techniques into running your business is that there should never be any ambiguity about where an employee fits in.

  • Do it now. Forget arbitrary timeframes. When it comes to feedback, more is better and today is better than tomorrow. Don't wait for a year to go by to tell somebody how they're doing. Annual reviews are good for birthdays, not appraisals. Too much goes on from one year to the next. Feedback must be instantaneous for it to be effective, leaving no surprises about performance levels and expectations. That way, good performance is recognised and repeated. On the flip side, you put a quick halt to anything that undermines the objectives of the team before it festers and takes on a life of its own. Instant feedback fosters an environment of accessibility and open communication. That's the lifeblood of a peak performance team.

  • Prepare. Give priority to the evaluation and review schedule. Few things in the business process are more important. Don't try to 'work it in' when work slows down. Take time before the performance review to think about those broad goals you want to talk to the employee about and what the best approach should be. Don't wait for the employee to sit down in front of you to start filling out the forms. That shows no respect and no thought about the process.

  • Focus on performance. It's easy to be swayed by personality. But the key to effective evaluation should look at how the employee's performance affects the team's objectives. Instead of saying an employee lacks motivation, try something like, "I notice that you're projects are consistently coming in after deadline, which makes it seem like you don't care. What can we do to help you meet your deadlines more effective.

  • Remember the three C's. Clear, constructive and consistent. Let them govern all your communications. Don't beat around the bush or sugarcoat your message. Beware the "buts," as in: "You're doing a really great job, but…." It may make it easier on you, but such messages are confusing. Don't be critical in your tone or the employee will immediately put up a defensive wall. For example, instead of saying, "You don't take initiative," turn it into a statement of expectation: "You really have some good ideas and I'm depending on you to step up and take action." Always provide relevant examples that help bring your points alive.

  • Lose the hokey forms. Nothing says, "I don't care" better than one-size-fits-all forms. Every member of the team has a different role in supporting the team. Develop good forms of your own that tie directly to the team mission. Evaluate only job-specific skills and compliance with company policies. Otherwise, the employee may feel that they are not judged fairly. Avoid rating numerically. This is confusing and can cause disagreements - "you rated me a 6 and I think I should be a 7." Most people resent being graded like a school kid.

  • Don't grade on the curve. Be consistent. Why can't all your employees be given perfect scorecards -   all A's - if it's deserved? That doesn't make you a soft manager. As a matter of fact, it makes you a strong and successful leader. You shine when your employees shine. Knock 'em down a notch or two and it undermines your integrity as a boss.

  • Involve others. Seek out other opinions. It is likely that you may only see a portion of what your team members are doing. Getting a 360-degree review not only helps eliminate any one-on-one bias, but also gives a richer picture of the employee's contributions. Plus, these reviews stress the importance of working together and underscore the responsibility to other team members. Feedback should always take place with another person present to ensure the message is clearly articulated and clearly understood. It also avoids nasty recriminations after the dust settles.

  • Take the next step. Work out a specific plan for improvement -- what the employee will do and by when. Give the employee a copy of the evaluation for their review and future reference. Have the employee sign a statement about what was discussed and what the relevant action items are.

Keep in mind that feedback should not be a one-way, top-down exercise. It is equally important that you, as a manager, have met your team's expectations. The performance evaluation should provide a forum for them to talk about their expectations of you and the company. This can be a difficult and awkward situation for you and for them. You can gain valuable information about how you can increase your effectiveness and your employees' job satisfaction. You might also have to face the fact that something you do may be a source of problems. Specifically, look for feedback on whether and how you:

  • Explain company goals clearly
  • Give clear job assignments
  • Keep employees informed
  • Understand what motivates employees
  • Discuss job requirements frequently
  • Recognize good performance
  • Know employees' career goals and offers career advice
  • Know and uses employees' skills
  • Provide resources to do the job
  • Listen to ideas
  • Credit others for usable ideas
  • Delegate important work
  • Consult employees in decisions
  • Go to bat for employees
  • Try to resolve disagreements and grievances

Receive feedback and criticism on your own performance with grace. Then do something about it. That response will underscore your commitment, your integrity, and above all, your humanness.