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Best Boss Practices: Giving Constructive Criticism

Kate White“Delivering negative feedback is hard in any sphere, but it’s especially awkward at work, where you may not know the person well and you anticipate he or she may get defensive, become sullen or even tear up,” says Kate White, former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and author of I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: How to Ask for Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve. “But the biggest mistake is not having the talk at all because your criticism is going to leak out in ways that won’t be constructive.”

Rookie Missteps

In her early days as a manager, White says there were times her criticism came out too strongly. “Maybe I was annoyed or I spouted out my concerns in a grave way,” she explains. “Almost always, the person’s performance got worse and would go into some sort of death spiral.”

Tough-Talk Help

But putting in some prep time really makes a difference. “You need to give some thought in advance to what you’re going to say,” White says. “Once I learned to frame my criticism in a positive way and to make clear what I considered progress, I got much better results.” Here’s her play-by-play on how to call an employee on the carpet.

#1 Pick your moment. After you’ve prepared what you’re going to say, including your concrete examples of what’s not working for you and what once did, call the employee and ask her to come to your office for a chat. “You don’t want to give too much warning because employees will worry and work themselves up,” White explains. She liked to have the talk near the end of the day so that if the employee was upset he could go home soon to think about what was said. “I also never did it before a weekend. It’s a weekend killer,” she adds.

#2 Start positive. From the beginning, make clear that the subordinate’s job isn’t in trouble—you just want to correct some behavior. For example, you could say, “Jamie, you are a really valued player here.” This will stop her from going into panic mode and decrease the chances that this talk will backfire on you.

#3 Make the first shot vague. The first negative thing you say should be something general like, “I have some concerns about your reports.” Why? “If you go into the specifics right away people won’t hear them. Once they understand the purpose of the talk, you have to give them a moment to switch gears,” White explains.

#4 Then be as clear as possible. Lay out what exactly the person has been doing wrong. Give examples: “Your last report had almost no research while the reports you did on X and Y two years ago cited five different sources each.” Then lay out what exactly the person needs to do to improve: “I want to see real data from at least three large studies and two interviews with leaders in the field.”

#5 Give them a turn to speak. “Don’t let the employee interrupt you when you’re talking,” White says. (If she does, say something like, “Why don’t you listen, hear what I have to say, and if you have questions when I’m done, I’d be happy to answer them.”) But once you’ve finished, let her have her say. “It’s good to hear the employee out so you can get a sense if things weren’t 100 percent clear before,” White says. “And letting your subordinate talk helps you to see whether he or she may not be fully aware of the overall expectations you have for them in their job.” But don’t get into a discussion or argument.

#6 Ask for a follow-up. Some employees will have the wherewithal to say, “Thank you for your feedback. I’m going to write it up, add my ideas on how to fix the situation moving forward and email it all to you for your sign-off.” (Something to remember to do if you’re ever on the receiving end, White adds.) But most people won’t, so suggest as much to them. “This gives them the chance to tell you that they heard you,” White says. “It also gives you the chance to correct them if they didn’t.”

Kate White will be speaking on “The Secrets for Succeeding in a Multigenerational Workplace” at the 2014 Pennsylvania Conference for Women.