Whether your managerial style is “free spirit” or more “results-driven Realist,” you’re a serious #bossbabe who brings her own set of much-needed attributes to her team. Maybe it’s your ability to make independent decisions, or maybe it’s your peacemaking expertise — but it’s probably not your mastery of constructive criticism, right? First-time managers and seasoned vets alike struggle with this task, so don’t feel self-conscious if you dread those one-on-one meetings with your team members. Ashley Cox, leadership development expert and founder of SproutHR, gave us some insider tips for tactfully and effectively conveying some not-so-positive input so you can quit stressin’ and get back to killin’ it.
1. Keep it clear and concise
Channel your inner Rory Gilmore and prepare, prepare, prepare. Beforehand, make sure to privately go over what you want and need to share during the conversation. If it will help you stay on track and remember essential details, you might even want to write down bullet points and bring them with you to the meeting. “Being prepared will help ease your nerves and keep your conversation focused,” Cox says. “Remember, as nervous as you are delivering this information, the person on the other end is 10 times as nervous hearing it.”
2. Humanize the conversation
At one point or another in your career, you received some constructive criticism that stung at least a little bit (you wouldn’t be where you are otherwise!). Keep this in mind when you’re trying to convey your feedback. How would you want to receive the information that you’re about to deliver? Once you’ve answered this question, adjust according to their personality type. “When delivering constructive criticism, it’s important to remember that there’s a human being on the other side of the conversation — one with dreams, goals, feelings and, yes, a life going on outside of work,” Cox emphasizes. “Take into consideration that something external could be impacting their overall performance and seek to understand what’s going on.”
3. Avoid extremes
You don’t want to leave the meeting feeling like a mean boss, but you also don’t want to walk away feeling like you didn’t get your point across. The best way to ensure neither of these outcomes is to avoid extremes (i.e., being to blunt or too delicate). Being too blunt can prompt the employee to go on the defensive and make them feel uninspired to make changes. Being too delicate can leave the individual feeling confused and equally unmotivated to alter their actions. Cox recommends being both direct and tactful. “Being direct helps to ensure your message is communicated clearly and is understood,” she explains.
4. Address the behavior, not the individual
Regardless of how well you and this particular employee jive, there’s a reason they’re on your team — because they contribute something valuable. Remember this when talking to them. “This action or event that you’re discussing with the individual is just that — one action or event,” Cox states. “We’re all human. We all mess up.” This individual’s one mistake or shortcoming does not make them a bad person or even a bad employee. “Address the behavior or action as being undesirable, not the individual,” Cox reiterates.
5. Include the “why”
This might seem obvious, but Cox says that throughout her career, she’s seen countless incidents of people sharing feedback and then failing to convey why the suggested improvement needs to be made. “It’s not very helpful if you tell someone that an action they took was wrong if you don’t share why,” Cox shares. “Make sure to explain why this behavior or action directly impacted the team, the customer or the overall company vision.” This will put things into perspective for the receiver and ultimately encourage them to make adjustments. And if you can’t think of a “why,” you might want to reevaluate the validity of your critique.
6. Move forward
Cox doesn’t sugarcoat it: “During the conversation, you’ll be uncomfortable. After the conversation, you’ll probably still feel uncomfortable.” And that’s okay, she assures us. But make a concerted effort to proceed as you normally would, whether that’s joking around, making small talk or whatever your normal style is. Because you’re the boss, the individual will take cues from you about how to act. “Don’t make it weird and it won’t be,” Cox says. “After all, you just shared some feedback to help the individual and the team improve. Nothing weird about that at all!”