Tech & Work

How to deliver criticism to a sensitive employee

Employees who are prone to get emotional in the face of criticism are often hard to deal with. Here are some tips for making this easier for you and for them.

If you've managed teams long enough, you're bound to come across an employee who doesn't take kindly to constructive criticism. Whether that person is prone to tears or angry outbursts, it's a behavior that makes it more difficult for a manager to do his or her job.

I once knew of an employee on another team who would consistently make things difficult for folks on my team because of her lack of attention to detail. When I asked her manager if she was aware of this, she said she was but every time she tried to talk to her about this, the employee would cry. So, like a bad Pavlovian experiment, the manager began to avoid the discussions altogether, allowing the problematic behavior to continue.

Here are some of my tips for delivering criticism to an employee who is never in the mood to receive it.

Meet face-to-face and prepare a written doc

It's very easy to misinterpret what someone says when you're in the throes of some emotion like sadness or anger. Be sure to write down exactly what you say to the employee so there is no question or "That's not what I thought you meant"s to deal with later. And on this point, it's important to:

Have the employee repeat what he or she is hearing

Having the employee say back to you what it is he or she thinks you're saying helps to clarify matters and also enforces the behavior you want to see. I once had to tell a tech writer that he missed so many deadlines that I was considering putting him on probation. To soften the blow, I said that he was a very good writer just not very timely. When he repeated back what he heard me say, he said, "You said I'm a good writer." He had some kind of turbo-charged defense mechanism going that allowed him to glean only the good stuff I'd said.

Criticize the behavior, not the personality

There are going to be some employees who are more emotional than others. You will never be able to change a personality but you can affect the outside behaviors that result from it.  You may have a support pro whose outgoing personality serves him well in his job. It's when that quality causes him to extend individual jobs longer than preferred that it becomes an issue. Then you simply make him aware that jobs have to be dealt with in a shorter span of time.

Give smaller burst of feedback (both good and bad) more frequently

You don't want to drop a major criticism on any employee at one time-whatever the temperament. It's much easier to deal with small examples of undesired behavior. And giving positive feedback helps an employee feel like it's not just about the errors. Also, employees won't dread coming to your office as much.

Don't enable the emotions

If the employee starts to cry or gets angry, stop the conversation and ask if she needs a moment. Don't end the conversation and schedule it for a later date. If you do that, you're only allowing the employee to think that the outbursts "work" to deflate criticism. Allow the employee to get it together and then resume the conversation.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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