It is said generally that praise should be given publicly, but criticism should always be private. This is particularly true in the medical culture of teaching junior doctors, where any criticism of technique should not only be conveyed out of earshot of peers, but this should also be avoided in front of patients. Providing sensitive feedback to a subordinate is an artform, but it is crucial in order to maintain that individual’s dignity and to keep their engagement in tact. So how can you provide tactful criticism that won’t get your employees offside? There are some tried and strategies to ensure you don’t mince words.
As a leader, your feedback should always have a positive tone, even when the subject matter is critical in nature. When you need to change the strategy of an employee, for example, it is unacceptable to say “that’s stupid!”, rather you should phrase the criticism as a guiding question such as, “I like your intent with that thought, but could you think of a way to make that idea more realistic and achievable?”. By remaining focussed on the goal at hand, you avoid a negative, personal attack, and instead, keep the tone more positive.
Convert criticism to constructive feedback
You are unlikely to affect real change if you leave an employee feeling bitter and embarrassed, they are likely to become even more resistant to change. For example, if you tell someone they have a “are lazy or incompetent, they are much more likely to get emotional and stubborn towards improvement. However, if there is a genuine problem, you have to say something. The strategy to take here is to begin from a different angle. Constructive feedback should be impersonal, matter-of-fact and timely. The value of behaviour change from the outset should also be made clear. For example, if you give a specific behaviour like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been late three times this week, which is likely to make your coworkers resentful of having to pick up extra work for you. What can be done about this?” This is an approach which is much more likely to get a favourable response and actually result in the change you want to see.
If you come across a really difficult situation in which you have to give negative feedback, it is best to apply these techniques to the letter. It also really helps to be well prepared to provide this feedback. Specifically:
- Prepare facts, figures, information. Anticipate what emotions will need to be dealt with and prepare a response.
- Give constructive feedback – in a carefully considered manner, using the information above’
- Deal with excuses – patiently and respectfully
- Ensure that it is possible for your employees to put into place the promises they make to rectify the situation.
Finally, give constructive feedback early. It will make the whole process easier, and will likely get on to a problem behaviour early before it becomes a giant festering mess. The more you deliver feedback earlier, the less negative feedback you are likely to have to give.