The gift of criticism

That moment when your manager says, ‘Can I just have a quick word?’ and you feel cold creeping dread. Most of us have had that sinking feeling: a fear of criticism or negative feedback. And it can feel as tough to give it as it can to receive it.

According to psychologists we feel anxious when we receive criticism, because at a basic level our brains interpret criticism as a primal threat to our sense of belonging and survival.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, showed in his research that our brains process negative feedback more thoroughly than positive feedback. This means that receiving criticism has a greater impact on us than receiving praise.

Many managers avoid giving negative feedback by skirting round the issue, avoiding it altogether, or even worse (in my opinion) offering the recipient what is commonly called a sh!t sandwich (that’s sandwiching negative feedback in between two glowing positive pieces of feedback). The typical outcome is that the giver thinks they have communicated negative feedback clearly and the receiver has no idea they have even been given any!

As a manager, part of your job is to offer up negative feedback, or criticism in a constructive way, because unless people receive this sort of feedback they cannot learn and grow.

10 tips for giving the gift of criticism

  1. Start with why: be clear in your own mind as to why you are giving negative feedback first, and then be clear with the person you are giving the feedback to.
  2. Specific: if you talk generally the receiver is unlikely to understand or agree. For example, don’t say, ‘I don’t think your performance is good enough’ describe the specific situation, ‘You have been late four times this week’.
  3. Understand: get to the root cause. There might be something else happening for the receiver that is causing under performance. If you can understand what is really going on you can then work with them on a solution.
  4. Situation not person: focus on the task in hand and don’t make it personal.
  5. Purpose: it can help to refer back to the contribution your employee makes to the bigger picture, the impact of their poor performance, and the benefit of changing. For example, ‘If you are not there on time, customers have to wait, this is a bad experience and impacts on the bottom line’.
  6. Candid and kind: we are all fragile human beings. Be clear and kind in your delivery of criticism.
  7. Timely: don’t wait for the next 1:1. Provide the critique as soon as you can. (The timely tip also applies to giving positive feedback)
  8. It’s a conversation: ask them how they thought the thing in question went, and ask for the good feedback first. Then ask what they might improve next time. This helps to make a two-way conversation and helps your employee to own the situation.
  9. Make it a habit: constructive criticism shouldn’t be a thing that people fear. A learning culture relies on continuous feedback. Build an evaluation and reflection into every project. This could be as simple as discussing what worked, what didn’t and what you will do differently next time.
  10. Lead by example: share you own learnings from negative feedback. For example, failure and feedback are important parts of the innovation culture that I help organsiations to develop. So I share my failures, one example being early on in my career I asked internal teams for ideas without being clear on the problem. As a result of my poor brief I was inundated with irrelevant ideas that I then had to quash. That was a hard-earned failure and as a result I don’t let my clients who are developing their innovation cultures make the same mistake that I did.

While giving negative feedback can feel awkward, it’s an essential part of a managers role. Without honest feedback your teams will not be able to improve, learn or grow. Become known as the manager that challenges their team to be the best they can by reliably giving feedback. Reframe giving negative feedback in your own mind as helping your team to shine. The growth of your employees and the ongoing success of your business and your own career depend on it.

This blog was first published at People Management. 

Do you ever feel stuck?

Everyone gets stuck. It’s part of life. We all have problems to solve, a tendency to procrastinate, a fear of failure and slumps in motivation. At one time or another, in your career it is inevitable that you will feel like you’re stuck in a rut. There are a few simple steps to pulling yourself out of a rut, but the process is hard work for most of us.

Being able to recognise when you are stuck, unpick why you feel that way and then take action to move forward is an important part of your personal and career development. Good managers are also able spot the symptoms of ‘stuck’ team members and help individuals ‘unstick’ themselves.

The symptoms

The first step in moving on from a rut is to recognise you are in one. Have you ever felt that you lack motivation for your role, or felt frustrated that you are not achieving enough, or bored by doing the same tasks? Sometimes being stuck might be more than just experiencing these feelings; perhaps you had a disappointing appraisal, were turned down for promotion or didn’t get the job you wanted. Take a step back and acknowledge how you feel. Consider how long you have felt these lacklustre feelings – if it’s more than once and consistent over weeks, months or even years, you are experiencing symptoms of stuck.

Why are you stuck?

If you suspect you are in a rut, the next step is working out why. And a way to do this is to ask yourself ‘why?’ five times. Sometimes described as ‘toddler syndrome’, repeatedly asking ‘why?’ helps you get to the root cause of why you are stuck. Find a coach, mentor or trusted friend to help you work through your ‘whys’. If you find yourself answering ‘I don’t know’, try to break that pattern. Ask yourself: ‘If I did know – what would I say?’

How to overcome being stuck

There are several proven ways to push through being stuck and get moving again.

First, connect with your purpose. What is important to you? What activities make you happy? Why do you do the job you do?

Then take a step back to reflect. How is what you are currently doing helping you achieve your purpose? Are you in the right role, working environment or organisation that is congruent with what’s important to you?

Then focus on where you want to be in five years. I know it’s a contrived question, but it’s only when you know where you want to be that can you plan your route to get there. Your current rut might be a means to an end and knowing that can be helpful. Make a plan: what do you need to do to get to where you want to go?

Stop thinking about what you have to do and just do it. Force yourself to take the first step on your plan.

What stops you?

The above tips might sound simple, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. From my experience, the main reason that we get stuck is fear of failure. Being in a rut might feel miserable but it feels safe. Changing your situation can feel frightening because the majority of human beings feel apprehensive about change. Focus on where you want to go and why. Surround yourself with positive people to support and encourage you, and use that momentum to help you push through the inertia that fear creates.

Ruts can be good

Sometimes if you’ve had the same job for a long time, you might feel pressure to move on, change or do something different. Don’t let employers, colleagues, friends or family project on to you their perception of being stuck in a rut. If you are happy and satisfied where you are, stay put.

Finally, remember that being stuck is normal and it is part of the process of growth. Often, that stuck feeling intensifies right before a breakthrough. Acknowledge that being stuck could be a positive signal and work with it.

This blog was first published at People Management. 

If you are stuck and would like some help to get unstuck, drop us a line. Lucidity coaching might be just what you need to get moving in the right direction.