Making critical feedback productive

Delivering critical feedback without causing defensiveness can be stressful, yet the demand placed on an owner or manager often requires painful confrontation – painful for the owner or manager as well as the employee. But does it really have to be that difficult?

It's 3:30 in the afternoon on a Friday. You're preparing for the Friday night rush. It's been a crazy week; sales are down and you feel like you're losing your mind when two employees call in sick at the last minute. And, it's homecoming weekend! Then a customer storms in and demands to see the manager (that's you). He complains that the order taker who took his order last Friday night was rude to him. You're not surprised because you have witnessed her "attitude" in the past. This situation definitely needs to be addressed. What would you do?

You want to keep the customer happy and help the employee learn how to handle situations like this without losing his or her temper, and possibly losing a customer as well.

Most owners and managers have experienced situations similar to this in the past. You want to keep the customer happy and help the employee learn how to handle situations like this without losing his or her temper, and possibly losing a customer as well. She's a steady worker, who's a bit immature. You don't want her to quit, but at times her behavior can be a problem. How do you give critical feedback to this kind of employee without causing defensiveness or making matters worse?

One owner had this to say: "When an employee makes a mistake, I talk to him or her in private. I may also mention the problem to the entire staff without disclosing the employee's name that was involved. They've probably all made the same mistake at one time or another. My feeling is that if a customer is dissatisfied, it doesn't matter whose fault it is. All of my employees are responsible for keeping our customers happy."

Don't interrogate or reprimand employees in front of other employees or customers.

The purpose of feedback is to help employees understand what they did wrong, be recognized for what they did right, and learn the correct way to handle difficult situations, as well as increase their desire to improve. Critical feedback is usually more difficult to deliver than positive feedback. But positive feedback is equally important.

Follow some basic guidelines in giving critical feedback. First, don't interrogate or reprimand employees in front of other employees or customers. Your goal is to help them improve, not to strip them of their self-esteem or embarrass them. Although most owners and managers know this rule, it's sometimes forgotten or ignored when the pressure is on.

Avoid losing your temper. Stay calm. Don't be like one pizzeria manager who was described by one of her employees as follows: "She went nuts when things got tense. The employees feared her constant critical feedback of them as well as her loud outbursts. Employees were afraid to come to work because they never knew what the manager would say or do. They would hope that she was in a good mood, but most often she was not. It made for a long shift."

It may help to choose a neutral area for the discussion, particularly if an employee is upset.

Choose the right time and the right place to give critical feedback. A very minor problem may require only a few minutes of one-on-one discussion in a quiet corner. Or you may want to schedule a time when you and the employee can sit down in your office for a more comprehensive talk. It may help to choose a neutral area for the discussion, particularly if an employee is upset.

Don't, however, be like Henry McClellan's supervisor who also owned the business. He had an electric garage door opener attached to the door of his office. "It was scary," said McClellan. "He'd call us in; the door would close; and he would blow his top! I finally quit. I couldn't stand it anymore."

When you have critical feedback for your employees keep these points in mind.

Don't start with a positive and then immediately switch to a negative.

Avoid using "but" as part of your comments, i.e., "You're a good cook, but…" The "but" negates whatever you said at the beginning and employees quickly learn to react to any compliment as merely the preamble to a criticism. Get to the point. Then conclude with what the employee does well. Everyone does something well.

Give specific feedback and target specific behaviors.

A general statement such as, "I don't like the way you act," doesn't supply enough information. What is it about the employee's behavior that you want changed? Is it the way he interacts with the drivers, the way in which she doesn't get along with co-workers, or the manner in which he handles customers who are irritated because of the long wait to be seated? Whatever the problem, the feedback must be specific or you're wasting your time.

Be sure to get both sides of the story.

Keep in mind that you and the employee have different perspectives.

For example, the customer told you that the order taker was rude. However, the customer didn't mention the condescending manner in which he first spoke to the order taker. Be sure you get both sides of the story. Presume innocent until proven otherwise.

Let the employee know the consequences for unacceptable behavior.

Tell employees what they can expect if matters don't improve. Don't scold your employees like you might children. Treat them like adults. But if there's a problem, follow your store policy that might include a verbal warning and then a written warning if the problem persists. Follow up to make sure that the employee understands the expectations and is making the necessary changes. Stephen Covey tells us that it takes 21 days to change a habit. Just because you've given critical feedback doesn't mean that people will change immediately. Give them time, but check to see that they are doing what they have committed to do. We all tend to go back to our old habits, unless there is reason why we shouldn't.

Take time to learn how to give critical feedback appropriately and avoid a situation like the following. The employee said: "We sabotaged the restaurant operation every chance we got because we hated the owner. He had no people skills. Even his customers couldn't stand to be around him because of the way he treated his employees."

In summary, criticism facilitates growth. It can increase employee morale and retention. If used properly, criticism is used to encourage improvement, not to remind people of their failures. The ability to give and take criticism is something every owner and manager must strive to do well. Honesty is a core value in any strong organization. Learning how to provide honest feedback can make the difference between a successful business and one that struggles to keep top talent and survive for the long term.