10 Tips For Criticising People

If you’re a England-based reader – I hope you enjoyed your long weekend thanks to Monday’s Bank Holiday break. The weather was unusually good here in the West Midlands, I got to attend a couple of parties and I actually kept my work activities to below an hour this weekend – which is some sort of new record for me! On the downside it’s meant I’ve returned to an overflowing inbox, but such is life when you’re self-employed – I still wouldn’t trade it for anything else!

One welcome e-mail I did return to was the latest newsletter from Alan Matthews at Train of Thought (which, if you don’t already subscribe to then I’d highly recommend) in which he lists 10 Tips for Criticising People.

After undertaking an emergency stint as IT Manager for one of my larger sized clients recently, I wish I had come across this list earlier!

The situation came about as the incumbent IT Manager was sidelined, and so I was asked to take on the role of managing the department and it’s staff with immediate effect.

Now what I do every day as an SMB IT Consultant is very similar to an IT Managers day-to-day role. Dealing with end-user issues, completing administrative tasks, handling vendors, and so on. What I don’t do every day is have to manage staff though!

Within a few days of taking on the role, and having to deal with the multiple "personalities" involved, I was ready to tear my hair out! I suddenly remembered why I left the Corporate environment for small business IT Consulting back in 2003 – as having to deal with lack of buy-in at management level, stuck-in-their-ways practices at employee level, and the general bureaucracy and politics of working in a large organisation left me increasingly frustrated.

One thing I quickly learnt was that getting people, even trained competent IT people, to do new things is very very difficult. I’ve read that it takes an individual almost 30 days of consistently repeating a task for it to become a habit – but I struggled to get the team to do it even twice in a row! Things that I do and take for granted such as setting an end-users expectations for issue resolution, escalating serious problems, constantly re-evaluating and setting new priorities for workload, implementing and following procedures for repetitive daily tasks, handling red-tape, and most of all – communicating – turned into almost confrontational situations when I tried to introduce new methods.

Something else I learnt from this situation was that if somebody says they want to learn and receive constructive criticism – they’re lying – what they really want is constant reassurance!

A couple of sweeping statements there, and yes – I’m well aware I’m not without fault myself, but hey – it’s my blog – love it or leave it. 😉

Anyway, I tried to be patient and understanding – but I didn’t do too well. Within 30 days I’d had to badger the client into finding a replacement (who I’d imagine is finding the role every bit as challenging as I did, so perhaps it wasn’t just me…) and mercifully returned to my usual SMB IT Consultant duties. The reduction in stress levels was incredible! I love my SMB clients so much! <grin>

So when I read Alan’s list below, I found myself nodding in agreement with more than a few points. I find it’s very difficult to criticise without becoming preachy, and far harder still not to scream "Just ****ing do it like I’ve both asked you to and wrote down how to fifteen times already!" at someone who keeps questioning your working practices! 🙂

1. Make sure that you catch people doing things right and comment on those occasions as well as when they do something wrong. Don’t have a situation when the only time you comment on someone’s behaviour or performance is when you are criticising them.

2. Be clear about your motives – are you saying something to help them or could there be another motive? Like what? Well, like making yourself look better or feel better, making a point about your own status, letting off steam because you’re in a bad mood.

3. Stick to the facts – tell someone what they did, why it was not the best thing to do and what you suggest they do next time. Don’t get drawn into personal comments, like " You’re careless ", or generalisations, like " You’re always late ". Stick to the person’s behaviour, not their character.

4. Consider the impact of what you say on the other person’s attitude, morale and motivation. If you say something in a way which leaves them feeling dejected, demoralised or annoyed, it is likely to be counterproductive.

5. Don’t get drawn into an argument about what YOU are doing wrong. Sometimes people respond to perceived criticism by hitting back, " Well, what about YOU!…"

6. Keep the discussion private – there’s an old saying, " Praise in public, criticise in private. "

7. Avoid confrontational rhetorical questions – such as, " How may times have I asked you to…?" Do you really want an answer to this, " I think it’s about 247 times now "?

These sort of comments can’t help, they only inflame the situation. If you have discussed something before, you can just say, " I know we had a conversation a while ago about this, but I just felt I needed to raise it again. "

8. Support, don’t threaten. If you are making a point to try to improve someone’s performance, make some positive suggestions about how they can change and offer help and support. Don’t just criticise or threaten. If you do have to raise the stakes, e.g. if someone is really underperforming and has been told about it before, be very clear about what is going to happen and why, but still offer help.

9. Use phrases such as, " I need/want/would like you to…" rather than " you should/ought to/must…" This makes the tone less confrontational and makes you take responsibility for what you are asking.

10. Don’t compare people. This is relevant whether at work or at home. Saying, " Why can’t you me more like your brother/sister? " is never a helpful approach.

Thoughts? Leave a comment. And before you ask – I’m not asking for constructive criticism of my IT Managers stint, so don’t bother – I’m really bad at taking criticism myself. 😉


2 Responses to “10 Tips For Criticising People”

  1. 1 Mike August 28, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    You have my sympathies Richard. As someone who had the onerous task of managing you for a while I know exaclty how you felt. It\’s no coincidence that my time at Ernst & Young with you was the last people managing role I took 🙂 !
    More seriously though, I have had many of the experiences you describe and you really do have my sympathies. In my experience your success and failure is directly dependent on the recipients willingness (or otherwise) to want to change for the better (or indeed worse). Yes – there are good and bad ways to deliver the message that will have a direct effect on the end result but ultimately the willingness of the individual to take on new things is the key. In my career (both in and out of people managing) I\’ve lost count of people who do things the way they do them "because that\’s the way we\’ve always done it" and have never considered that there might be another way to acheive the same outcome that might have more beneficial atrtibutes (speed, efficiency, completeness, user experience et etc).
    When I was at Uni I remember attending some classes that were around workplace psychology. One of the classes that I remember to this day (and it was a long time ago) was what motivates people to come to work. It fundamentally boiled down to two motivations:
    1. It\’s a necessary evil. People work because they have to earn money to live. They do what they have to do and no more.
    2: I want to succeed. People come to work both to earn money and do the best job they can. Whether they enjoy their job is largely irrelevant – they want to do it well and be recognised as doing so.
    It\’s a simplistic theory but there\’s a large element of truth to it. From a management perspective the people falling into the first category have to be micro-managed to ensure they do the job properly. The second group need to have the barriers that prevent them doing a good job removed. In truth individuals are generally a mixture of the two in varying proportions and the good managers recognise this and use an appropriate management style to get the best of the individual. Individuals also change over time as other circumstances in and out of work have more temporary influence on them. Company culture also has a big influence.
    As an employee I\’ve been managed by great and awful managers. I hope I was never an awful man manager but I don\’t think I was ever great. It\’s something I may come back to at some point in the future and I hope I\’m older and more importantly wiser for the experience. However, I\’ll only manage people again if you promise to stay in Birmingham so I know there\’s a good 12,000 miles between us and I won\’t end up managing you again ;0).
    Take care

  2. 2 Richard August 29, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Well, I\’m not sure I\’ve ever made a blog posting that has generated so much e-mail! I\’m struck by the divide in peoples opinions in their responses to me – it seems that all the e-mails I\’ve had supporting my suggestion of how difficult it can be to be a manager (in a similar vein to Mike\’s comments – minus the fact Mike correctly stated I was a difficult employee! <grin>) have come from those who have undertaken such a management role and are very experienced in the industry. The alternative view from those who believed that I shouldn\’t have tried to implement change and have kept the ship steady in my caretaker role, all came from relatively inexperienced respondents who (I\’m guessing) haven\’t had any management experience. Therein seems to lie the problem – both sides always think they are right! I\’m strongly in agreement with Mike\’s suggestion of two categories for staff though – and the fact that Company Culture can either make or break an individuals outlook towards a job. In my experience, apathy from upper management will always kill off any enthusiasm further down the chain it seems – and this might be a quick process or a slow process, but eventually staff will end up seeing it as "just a job".

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