Despite what we say, we don't like to criticize or be criticized. Invariably, when criticized, we react defensively. When we must criticize or evaluate others, we postpone it as long as possible. As a result, we don't offer timely enough criticism, and it's often ineffective when we do. Yet we shouldn't dread criticism, whether giving or receiving it.
There are some things we can do and some we can avoid in order to smooth the process. If criticism is handled properly by both parties, it can improve performance and strengthen relationships. Based on my personal experience as a financial officer and consultant for many years, I developed some guidelines for criticizing and for receiving criticism.
1. Avoid making personal judgments
Healthy criticism must be perceived as being objective. If it isn't, anger will erupt. Allowing anger into the critical process is anathema and must be avoided by both sides. Anger isn't professional for either, but it reflects more on the skills of those critiquing, so criticism must be positive in its delivery. Offering one or more approaches to behavior encourages one to accept advice more agreeably.
Our water treatment product line sales reps were making costly clerical errors because the bid calculations were too complicated for on-site bids. Yet on-site bids were important because the sales reps felt that if they didn't secure the business before they left the customer, the sale would be lost. Instead of reaming out the sales reps for sloppy work, we focused on the problem. As financial VP, I called a meeting of the sales VP, the product manager, and key district managers. I wasn't critical; moreover, I commiserated with them, felt their pain, and suggested we consider a Hewlett-Packard 41 series programmable calculator (pre-PC years). Once programmed, the calculator would ask questions, and then the sales rep would key in the parameters. The calculator would produce the error-free answers to the customer's unique problem. In all likelihood, the sales rep would walk away with the business after impressing the customer with the black, formidable-looking, hand-held computer-like device. We unanimously agreed to purchase 65 of them. This move eliminated the clerical mistakes, increased water treatment business, and improved morale. What's more, the process involved no hard feelings.
2. Never criticize anyone in public
Criticism can be either positive or negative. It's acceptable to give casual praise publicly, but deep praise should be reserved for mano y mano. What's the difference? Casual praise can consist of something like: "Great job on the Harrison report, Karen." Such a comment can be made while hardly breaking stride. Yet everybody heard: The boss is happy with Karen and said so to her face in front of her colleagues. Deep praise involves more detail and would likely embarrass Karen and minimize the intended impact if given in a casual way. Actually, it would have a negative effect then.
3. Never criticize amid interruptions
Choose the time and place carefully. This guideline automatically eliminates meals. Try to avoid time boundaries. If you know Karen has to pick up a child at 5:30 p.m., don't plan a performance review for 4:00 p.m. Also, try to anticipate your schedule and switch your calls to an answering system. Discussing performance can get emotional.
4. Document your criticism
Don't compile an attorney-type dossier, but be specific and methodical. Have dates ready in case they're needed and times if appropriate. Prepare notes, but don't read from a list. Set the stage so that it's obvious that what you're saying or about to say isn't an arbitrary or spur-of-the-moment event. Also, don't give the impression that this review is your career centerpiece. It's something that needs to be done, thoroughly but timely, so you both can move on. But be careful not to hurry or trivialize …