When providing feedback, it’s all about the delivery. To achieve your end goal more often avoid the pronoun ‘you’ and avoiding generalizations when giving constructive criticism. Just think about how you felt the last time somebody said ‘You are always late for meetings’ or ‘You never do your share of the work’ – it triggers the defensive reflex.
The purpose of constructive criticism is to change future behavior, not to shame the person exhibiting the behavior. Use of the words ‘you’ and ‘always’ or ‘never’ when giving criticism raises people’s defenses and hinders effective communication, reducing the chance of changed behavior. When we hear ‘you’ we tend to react as if we are being personally attacked, even if that is not the intention. When we hear generalizations such as ‘always’ or ‘never,’ we tend to react as if it is not fair, because nothing is true 100 percent of the time.
These defensive human reactions have to do with the attribution bias, which is the human tendency to take personal credit when things go well and give responsibility to outside factors when things don’t. Attribution bias works just the opposite for others; we assign personal responsibility to others when things don’t go well and assign credit to outside factors when things do go well.
Given what we know about human nature, you will be much more effective as a leader if you carefully word your constructive criticism. To get a sense, just imagine yourself in these two scenarios and see how you feel.
Scenario One: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk into the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘You are always late.’
Scenario Two: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk in to the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘Let’s all try to be on time next Monday so we can start our week off right.’
If you are like most people, the first scenario feels like a personal attack and you think that factors out of your control were the cause of your lateness. The second scenario feels much more palatable because you think that factors out of your control made you late, but still acknowledge that it is better if everyone is on time.
As a leader, you can experiment with wording your criticism carefully and then watch the different reactions of those whose behavior you are trying to modify. The table below gives examples of alternative statements you can make while doing this experiment.
|Instead of Saying This . . .
|You never do your share of the work. Can you stop being lazy and get to work? Don’t you see that everyone else is working harder than you here?
|When we all contribute significantly, we all benefit from reaching our goals. What do you think your greatest contribution can be here? Is there anything that is hindering your efforts?
|You always mess up projects. Your mistake is costing everyone. What were you thinking? How are you going to fix it?
|The mistake made on this project has significant consequences. What do you think we can do to correct it immediately and prevent it from happening again in the future?
|The way you talk to coworkers always pisses everyone off and never gets you what you want. Why are you so rude?
|Since everyone has different styles of communication, it is helpful to adapt to others’ styles in the office. How can I help you to observe others and learn to adapt to their styles?
Odds are you will be pleasantly surprised at how switching just a few words can have a significant impact on the reaction of others and the achievement of your end goal of changed behavior.