7 Ways to Soften Critiques, Criticisms and Bad News

I once worked with a woman who created the marketing materials for a world-class tennis resort. She would spend days developing brochures, magazine ads, direct mail pieces and flyers. Each time she submitted a new piece of work for review, she’d hear nothing other than there was a typo on page three or that a headline should be larger. She was never complimented on the layout, headline, photos, color choices or overall message. She came to see her work as soul-crushing, lost all motivation to put in extra effort and she eventually left the company.

Some bosses can give individual employees bad news without seeming to be the bad guy, while other managers become Bill Lumbergh in their eyes of their staff every time they deliver a critique, correction or ask for a change. Delivering uncomfortable information using a combination of these seven tips will make your peers less likely to want to “kill the messenger.”

Praise First

When you only give bad news, even a small correction, that is the sum total of your message – that your employee screwed up. Often, a subordinate’s miscue is not a big deal for you, especially when the staffer is one of your favorites, but the way you deliver criticism doesn’t communicate that. When possible, let an employee know you’re pleased with her work at the start of your discussion if that’s the case. Point out what she did well and what you think of the overall project. Once you’ve set the tone that you’re pleased with an employee’s work, you can then suggest ways she can make it even stronger next time, or point out any errors that need to be cleaned up.

In some cases, you can provide nothing but praise for a report or proposal during your first interaction with a subordinate or co-worker. Later in the day or the next morning, you can follow up with corrections or suggestions.

Count to 10

There will be times when an employee messes up and there’s nothing positive to praise. Don’t lose your cool even if you’re reacting to something patently wrong, such as gossip, continued tardiness, sloppy work that’s not proofed or other acts of incompetence. Don’t be emotional when you give bad news or you might deliver an unprofessional message you don’t mean to give.

Be Specific and Show Alternatives

One of the things that frustrates golf and tennis students is when their coaches only tell them what they are doing wrong, not what they’re supposed to be doing right. “Don’t step across,” or “Don’t lift your head,” doesn’t deliver the intended message of, “You need to step forward, toward the net,” or “Keep your torso bent downward during the forward swing.”

When you deliver bad news, don’t just point out errors. Try to explain what your staffer should have done or can do in the future. Ask for solutions so that the staffer feels you are working to find a way to improve her future performance, which signifies his job is not in jeopardy.

Ask for Input

Don’t assume an employee has made a mistake just because you think she has. In some cases, she might have been following directions from another supervisor or a written document. Asking an employee why she performed in a certain way can help you avoid mistakenly accusing a staffer of making an error. It can also help you get the employee to admit to and own the mistake if she did make an error. Once you’ve asked why a subordinate performed a certain way, ask her how she can avoid it in the future and what steps she’ll take to ensure the correct performance.

Have Detailed Job Descriptions

Few things can be more contentious than an annual review or job evaluations when the boss and employee don’t agree on the job description. Work with your HR department to make sure you understand each employee’s job description. Ask HR to change job a description if you feel it doesn’t cover what you need an employee to do. Don’t be afraid to let employees help develop their job descriptions and make sure you review them with each subordinate at the start of the year to prevent end-of-year performance reviews.

Give Status Updates

Don’t put off giving bad news — waiting until the last minute creates unpleasant surprises that can magnify problems. If you address problems early, you give your staff more time to change behaviors or suggest fixes. How can you spot if you’re someone who likes to avoid conflict? If your first reaction to having to deliver bad news is to think whether anyone else can deliver the message, you might be someone who puts off giving bad news until the very last minute.

Respect Privacy

A managing partner of a management consultant firm used to dress down his C-Suite level senior consultants in front of secretaries and junior employees. He felt it established his authority and credibility. His company soon became known as a revolving door for top talent, who fled his disrespectful tirades.

Don’t criticize your employees in front of their co-workers. Send a private email, talk to someone at his or her desk in a low tone or pick up the phone and call. Don’t call people into your office if it’s obvious to other staff that you only do this when someone has messed up.

Do you have any tips or techniques for helping deliver bad news without avoiding the problem? Please feel free to share your tips.

Additional Resources

Forbes: The 10 Commandments for Delivering Bad News

Mind Tools: Delivering Bad News

FOX Business News: How to Deliver Feedback to Employees Without Squashing

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply