Telling an employee that they need to improve does not conjure up warm, fuzzy feelings. In fact, many employers dread it and may get gun shy. After all, an employee could take it the wrong way, and the constructive criticism could be ill received.
“This is a legitimate fear, because many people have given constructive criticism, only to have it backfire,” says Jennifer Selby Long, management consultant and executive coach, Selby Group, Oakland, Calif.
Fortunately, there are measures you can take to make offering constructive criticism less dreadful. Asking an employee to improve can be tough. Try these tips to increase the chances your request will be received well.
Keep It Private
Jonathan M. Greer, MD, FACR, FACP, president, Arthritis and Rheumatology Associates of Palm Beach, and affiliate clinical professor of medicine, Nova Southeastern University, Boynton Beach, Fla., advises speaking with the individual one on one.
“Do not do it in front of peers, which is embarrassing and can create anger,” Dr. Greer says. In addition, he says you should speak in a calm and deliberate manner.
Don’t Rush It
Rich Gallagher, LMFT, founder, Point of Contact Group, Ithaca, N.Y., and author of How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work (AMACOM, 2009), points out that what you say in the first 30 seconds governs how successful the rest of the conversation will be. “Ask them how they are doing, and then neutrally observe a problem,” he says. “Do not shame them, challenge them or rush too quickly into problem solving.”
Throughout the conversation, strive to use strength-based communication. This is a criticism-free and blame-free approach that treats the other person as a partner in solving a problem, says Mr. Gallagher, who points out that criticism almost always channels the other person’s energy toward defending themselves instead of solving the problem.
Be sure to ask good questions to learn their side of the story. “Believe it or not, even excuses or finger pointing are seen as a good thing in strength-based communication, because they keep a safe conversation moving forward on topic,” Mr. Gallagher continues.
Most importantly, normalize and acknowledge what the other person is saying. “The key to strength-based communication is to frame the other person’s position as that of a totally reasonable person,” Mr. Gallagher says. “This feels like drinking poison to many people initially, but in reality it keeps the conversation safe and permanently moves their objections off the table, opening the door to truly effective problem solving.”
Finally, when you get your agenda on the table, be neutral and factual, and invite the other person to solve the problem with you. “Facts are your friends here,” Mr. Gallagher says. “Instead of saying, ‘You are rude to customers,’ say, ‘When you say X, here is how people react to it. What could you say instead? Would you like some suggestions?’”
Dr. Greer has found that using more of the term “I” and less of “you” is beneficial. For example, when confronting an employee about tardiness, he may say, “I noticed that several times you were not able to get to work on time. Is there a problem with your transportation?” Making the issues seem more like an enhancement toward improved work flow and less accusatory will improve receptiveness.
7 Practical Applications
Below, experts provide advice on how to handle seven situations that require giving constructive criticism. The experts include Dr. Greer; Mr. Gallagher; Ms. Selby Long; Elana M. Oberstein, MD, MPH, FACR, practicing rheumatologist, Arthritis and Rheumatic Disease Specialties, Miami; Sheeja Francis, MD, FACR, rheumatologist, Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, PC, New Windsor, N.Y.; and Lynn Berger, LMHC, NCC, MCC, a career counselor and coach in New York.
Scenario No. 1: Skipping Out Too Soon
An employee who does a good job otherwise often arrives a little late and leaves a little early, leaving others to pick up the slack. She often blames the traffic or the need to pick up her kids. How should you address this situation?
Dr. Greer: I would ask the employee to help me understand the issues she is having with her work hours. I would inquire if it’s a problem with child care or if other issues at home require attention. Then, I’d ask how I could help improve her work hours (if there is some flexibility on my end).
Dr. Oberstein: I would refer to the practice’s employee handbook, which should clearly state staff’s hours of operations. Point out that it’s important that everyone adhere to these hours equally, unless prior written permission is given. Obviously, sudden unexpected accidents or road closures may delay an employee on a rare occasion. However, persistent tardiness is detrimental to the work environment. Every employee should be familiar with these guidelines and be aware of consequences that stem from noncompliance.
Dr. Francis: Discuss possible challenges she may be facing in terms of time. Acknowledge the quality of the employee’s work, while at the same time pointing out how important it is to not leave work behind for others. Giving the employee a chance to explain may also lead to creating a work schedule that may fit both the employee’s personal needs, as well as those of the office.
Scenario No. 2: Chatty Cathy
You’ve noticed that a nurse is a little too talkative about personal stuff with patients. What should you say to her?
Ms. Berger: Use the sandwich approach: Start by saying something positive, then give constructive criticism in the middle, and then end with a positive statement. In this instance you could say, “We’re happy you’re personable and get to know patients, but there are boundaries as professionals that we need to put into place. It’s not really appropriate for you to share personal information, especially with patients.” Mention where the boundaries are. Then, end by saying, “You’re a wonderful employee, and everyone loves that you are personable, but there is a difference [between being nice and] sharing things that aren’t appropriate.”
Dr. Greer: First of all, I would tell the nurse that being friendly and empathetic is encouraged and we appreciate her efforts to put patients at ease. I would, however, tell her politely that discussing personal information is not something that our group condones and is not in our employee policy manual. I would also remind her that in a busy practice we need to keep work flowing in a positive direction.
Mr. Gallagher: First, describe her the way she would describe herself—with respect, such as, “I can see that you are very comfortable sharing what is going on in your life with other people.” Then normalize it, “I can see where this builds good relationships with some people.” Finally, invite her to solve the problem with you: “I have noticed that some people are a little uncomfortable with discussing too much personal information. Have you noticed this, too? I’m wondering how a naturally outgoing person like yourself might make these patients feel more comfortable—what do you think?”
Scenario No. 3 Room for Improvement
Although a long-time employee was thrilled to be promoted, she is not meeting your expectations. How can you tell her she needs to improve without diminishing her positive attitude?
Mr. Gallagher: Instead of telling her that she is doing a poor job, ask her to show you how she does her work—then painlessly troubleshoot it by showing her a better way to do it or educating her on how she can meet your expectations. This is exactly how many successful major league coaches get the best out of their athletes—they are always showing them a better way without criticism or disrespect.
Ms. Berger: Use the sandwich approach, by first noting that you understand it’s a new position and it can take a while for everyone to learn new responsibilities. However, these are few areas to prioritize and work on. Give focus and direction of what to start with. End with, “I know you’re trying very hard.”
Dr. Francis: Schedule a review of the employee’s work performance. Start by discussing the positive impact she has had since being promoted. Then continue to discuss further goals she should try to reach.
Scenario No. 4: Balancing Friendship
You and a nurse, Shelley, were friendly before she was hired. You live in the same neighborhood, and your kids’ social circles co-mingle at times. You’ve caught Shelley making a few minor mistakes and have brushed them off. But you realize you really need to be more firm before a serious mistake occurs. How do you approach Shelley without damaging the friendship?
Dr. Greer: Trying to be buddy-buddy with your employees does not work and undermines the chain of command. The key is to set expectations when you hire someone, and make sure the employee knows at the onset that they work for you. Keeping a separate boundary between you, as the employer, and your employee is crucial. Otherwise, many problems can develop that can be disruptive to both you and your practice. This does not mean you cannot act in a friendly manner toward your employees and to give encouragement when needed. If a true friendship has already developed, then I would remind her that she works for me and that she needs to adhere to certain items in order to keep our practice running smoothly. I would have a manager join the meeting to underscore the importance of the employer–employee relationship.
Ms. Selby Long: A boss can’t be friends with a direct report in the same way that you can be friends with someone who isn’t your direct report. In this case, I would say to Shelley, “Our working relationship, your success here and the success of the practice are all important to me. I know they are to you, too. I want to share something that has been concerning me.” If you’re getting non-verbal cues that she is concerned or uncomfortable, say, “Would you be open to hearing some feedback?” to help put the employee more at ease.
Even better, during the job interview—if you’re in charge of hiring—address the fact that being her boss would change the nature of your friendship. Say something like, “We both have to be willing to have more distance in our friendship to make this work. How do you feel about that? If you’re not comfortable with this, I am happy to refer you to other specialists because I think you would be an incredible hire.”
Scenario No. 5: Phone Etiquette
A receptionist talks too loud on the phone. This is disruptive to other front office staff and patients in the waiting area. What should you do?
Dr. Greer: If an employee does this, they are told about it immediately and firmly. The employee is given a warning by management, and a note is placed in their personal record. A second occurrence is grounds for dismissal. This type of behavior cannot be tolerated, and it should be made clear to the employee that it cannot occur again.
Dr. Oberstein: It’s important to highlight the need to keep voices low to protect personal health information. The need to speak concisely and discreetly on the phone should be a protocol in any healthcare setting. When you explain the basis of your suggestion to speak softly, the employee should easily understand your reasoning and correct her behavior.
Ms. Berger: Again, use the sandwich approach. Start with something positive, such as, “You’re enthusiastic and speak so everyone can hear you, but often, we don’t hear ourselves, and you may not realize that your voice carries—becoming quite loud. Could you try to be conscious of this and lower your voice? Sometimes this happens to me as well, and I have to make a mental note to keep a low voice.” Close by thanking her for her efforts.
Scenario No. 6: Limiting Smartphone Usage
You work in a small office with some occasional downtime. Several staff entertain themselves and each other with their smartphones during this time. In fact, they bring you into the conversation, showing you cute pictures on Facebook or funny videos on YouTube. You don’t want to be rude, but you find this unprofessional.
Making the issues seem more like an enhancement toward improved work flow & less accusatory will improve receptiveness.
Dr. Greer: We have an office policy that proscribes the use of smartphones, Web surfing and texting during office hours. Our employees sign this agreement when they are first hired so they should know upfront that this is not an acceptable behavior. If we observe this, either my manager or myself will remind them that this is not to be done during work hours. Usually, we overlook minor offenses, but repeated offenses are placed in the employee’s personnel file. Employees have been dismissed for doing this excessively.
Ms. Selby Long: It’s important to set a policy regarding this. Explain your reasons for implementing the new rule, such as that “Patients want to see their healthcare team 100% committed to their health.” Ask employees to put themselves in the patient’s shoes. Imagine being in severe pain and your caregivers are distracted and laughing over a cat video. Then, reinforce the rule with a smile and maintain consistency in enforcing it.
Scenario No. 7: In the Hot Seat
When the tables are turned and an employee gives you constructive criticism, what are some professional ways to respond?
Dr. Greer: I always thank the employee for their comments and tell them that I will certainly consider what they have said. I also tell them that they should feel free to talk to me about any issues in the practice that might need to be addressed. Never act in a condescending fashion, and always act professionally and thoughtfully when an employee comes to you with a problem.
Ms. Selby Long: Check your emotions, and remind yourself immediately that feedback is a gift. It takes tremendous courage for an employee to give constructive criticism. But unless you have trained employees and encouraged it, they may not come to you in a constructive-sounding manner. Remember that all gifts don’t come nicely wrapped with a bow. It is key that you say and mean, “Thank you so much for your feedback. I know that it can be challenging to give me feedback. I appreciate it very much.” If you feel that you can act on it right away, say so. If you’re not sure, say, “I will reflect on this and think about what I will do about it.”
The Gift that Should Keep on Giving
One final thought is to not limit criticism to only when an employee needs to improve—there’s such a thing as positive criticism, too.
“Give feedback all day, every day. Employees need to have between three and four positive messages regarding their work for every constructive message you give them,” Ms. Selby Long says. “When the scale tips too far in the direction of criticism, even if it’s constructive, it begins to eat away at someone’s confidence that they can ever perform to your satisfaction.”
Karen Appold is a medical writer in Pennsylvania.
A Guideline to Giving Constructive Criticism
Jennifer Selby Long, management consultant and executive coach, Selby Group, Oakland, Calif., suggests following this template when asking an employee to improve.
- When you do [observable behavior],
- I experience/observe [effect on me/patients/others].
- Instead, I would like you to do [behavior that would work better for me].
- Are you open to considering this alternative?
- How am I contributing to this challenge? Is there something I should do differently?
- I’m willing to do [behavior I’m willing to commit to] to support this change.