It’s best to stress what has been done correctly

Manager's Handbook, Prague Business Journal, May 2003

July 7th, 2003

Pavel has just been promoted manager of a new department. After having established a positive relationship with his new personal assistant Lenka, he felt that was she was starting to distance herself from him. Worrying that he might have contributed to her new behavior Pavel called me to express his concern. I first asked him what had changed in Lenka’s attitude to make him believe that. “Well, during today’s departmental meeting, she made no attempt to make eye contact. And instead of taking notes as she usually does, she was making random doodles on the side of her page”. Lenka’s body language was indeed sending the strong signal that something was disturbing her.

I suggested to Pavel that he spoke openly with Lenka and ask what was bothering her. I also told him to go to the meeting with an open and receptive frame of mind. When Pavel called me a couple of days later, he was pretty confused.

After having asked Lenka a few weeks ago to prepare a telecommunication report, he had called her into the office to go over the results. The report had fallen short of his expectations. “How could you have missed that? What were you thinking?” he had groused. His unexpected reaction discouraged her, and where she once attacked the project with zeal and curiosity, she was now glumly filling in the holes, with no attempts to think beyond what Pavel had told her. She interpreted Pavel’s reaction as a criticism which created a communication wall between them.

After meeting with Lenka, Pavel became fully aware that by focusing on what hadn’t been done instead of what had been done, he had inadvertently let his own anger and frustration about the situation dominate his communication to her. But he still wasn’t sure how he could have handled the situation better from the beginning.

Since Pavel had two children, I ask him to think about the way he motivates them. Parents are much more likely to use praise to motivate their children. But as they grow older, that praise turns more critical. Imagine a parent encouraging a toddler to walk with: “I’m giving you one last chance to get that step right, young man.” But something happens as we get older, and those threats and criticisms take the place of “you can do it,” and “well done.”

The result is that we begin to build communicative walls, until we stop listening to our critical parents. Criticism in the workplace can have similar results. What people perceived as negative, unconstructive criticism, is often fueled by emotion, which interferes with our ability to use reason. Acknowledging what an individual has done right in a problem situation is just as important as pointing out what is lacking. In order to learn to accurately evaluate his own performance an employee needs a full picture of the situation, not just what wasn’t done right,

If Pavel understood how his emotions had blinded him, he was still unsure about his capacities to balance constructive criticism and praise. Aware that he was looking for concrete steps to improve his communication with Lenka and his team in general, I told him that when he felt the urge to criticize something or someone, he needed to follow three basic steps.

#1 Stay rational

To keep emotions under control, you need to be aware of the moment we feel frustration, anger blinding our rational thinking. At that specific moment you have to ask yourselves what is more important; to vent those overwhelming emotions or to keep the communication open and positive. The natural emotional response is to cause pain when one suffers pain. But a good manager will know to take step back and let that first emotional wave pass. This will allow you to really focus on the entire issue, not just the problem.

#2 Praise before criticism

Praise makes us feel good and increases our self-confidence; criticism makes us feel bad and inadequate. If the objective of the criticism is to lead the employee to own up to his mistake, start by asking questions about what has been done and how come what has been done isn’t what has been expected versus asking why. Asking Why doesn’t lead to results, asking How does. And to remember to praise what has been done, acknowledging what has been done right will encourage the employee to accept responsibility for the parts that failed.

#3 Follow Up

Agree with the employee what is to follow. Give him the opportunity to suggest ways to salvage the situation. This approach may take a little more time than simply telling him what to do, but in the long run, he will be better equipped to solve the problem on his own on the next project. Send a memo a day or two later. Again remind the employee what was done right, and remind him that you always expect his best effort. People tend to deliver what you expect.