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Giving constructive criticism with aplomb.

Giving constructive criticism with aplomb

Many laboratory supervisors and managers have trouble learning an essential management skill: how to give creative criticism that will be received openly and lead to behavioral change.

Some managers question their ability or even their right to criticize others. They fear that the person on the receiving end will handle their comments poorly and fail to make the desired change. Result: creating a negative atmosphere and wasting everyone's time.

The goals in giving criticism extend beyond spurring change. It may be equally important to build self-esteem, improve performance, communicate values and needs, and stimulate growth in a manner that will add value to the laboratory.

If you have had trouble using critical skills to motivate your staff and colleagues, clarify your approach. On every occasion, focus on the reason behind the criticism you are about to give. What is your goal?

* Formulate a plan. Before expressing criticism, understand what you're talking about. That's not always easy, especially regarding staff members on other shifts whom you can't observe directly. Obtain information through formal means rather than through the grapevine.

Be prepared to provide the person you are criticizing with specific examples. Avoid using extreme terms such as "never" and "always"; these words invite argument, defensiveness, or hostility. If you are very frustrated with a tardy technician, for example, you might be tempted to say, "You always come in late." The technician, who has surely come to work on time at least once, will respond negatively to your unsupported (and technically untrue) assertion.

In more complex situations, give examples of the behavior you want and state clearly why the change is needed. An impatient or cantankerous physician will probably be more receptive to your criticism when you clarify the reason you have requested a change and specify what must be done.

Select an appropriate environment in which to criticize. Some people respond more positively in an informal environment, perhaps over a cup of coffee. Others, more receptive in a formal environment, might prefer to sit across from you in an office, with your desk as a buffer. Such an arrangement tells such people to take your remarks seriously.

Before the meeting, project a realistic time frame in which to achieve the change you want. People can't effect change when they're swamped with work; consider how busy the lab is likely to be in the next few months.

In choosing a time frame, reflect on personal qualities of the individual you are about to criticize. Errors in timing are common among overachievers, for example, who believe they can change more rapidly than they really can, and among underachievers, who may overestimate how long it will take for them to change. Your role is to help certain personality types compensate for their own deficiencies.

* Personal style. The creative critic considers the personal style of the individual in question. Is the person you are about to criticize:

[Paragraph]An action-oriented doer, motivated by activity, efficiency, and goal-setting?

[Paragraph]Detail-oriented, a thinker who is motivated by facts, order, and doing the correct thing?

The two categories above include many physicians.

[Paragraph]Expressive and image-oriented, motivated by getting attention, having fun, or being the first person to try something?

[Paragraph]People-oriented, motivated by helping others, being liked, and building relationships?

* Strategies. As you begin the conversation, note that you will try to be objective but acknowledge that all criticism is essentially subjective. We judge others based on our own value systems, education, experience, and expectations. By recognizing and pointing out the inherent subjectivity of criticism, you will cut off much defensiveness and argument.

When offering a critique, choose your words carefully. Use phrases such as "I think," "it seems to me," and "I believe." These words avoid the hostile or defensive response that might be provoked by phrases such as "You did?" or "Why did you . . .?"

Make it clear that the person being criticized will be given an opportunity to respond. You could say, "I'm going to give you my view, and when I'm finished I'll want to hear what you think." Establishing the dialog in this way will minimize interruptions.

To increase your effectiveness as a critic, view yourself as a coach. Coaches bring out the best in individuals as well as in teams. Doing so is the ideal for managers, supervisors, and pathologists working in a growth- and quality-oriented laboratory environment.

Early in my career, a supervisor told me that the art of managing people involved the ability to bring out the "giftedness" in each employee. This concept lies at the heart of giving skillful, creative criticism.

* Criticize positively. Foster an upbeat attitude. Concentrate less on the problem than on the solution. Emphasizing negative past behavior may cause the person being criticized to tune you out. Belaboring old errors generates negative responses--apathy, defensiveness, demoralization.

Avoid the common trap of mentioning the positive before the negative, using "but" in between. "But" is a verbal eraser that causes the listener to forget whatever was said first. Consequently, only the negative is remembered. Result: little or no change in behavior. It's far better to use the word "and."

If an employee makes a mistake, you might say, "You did the first three steps just right, and I know you'll do the fourth step correctly once you review the procedure" (or "after I have coached you"). Making your statement in this way shows that you believe the person is already doing well. Focusing on ways to improve enhances self-esteem and encourages the person to be receptive to your comments.

* Criticize promptly. Dispense your criticism as soon as possible after the behavior that needs to be changed has taken place. If the person you are criticizing responds with "You certainly are quick to jump on me," suspend this rule. Explain that you usually like to respond immediately but don't mind waiting until later in the day (or even the next day). Make it clear that you are only delaying the discussion.

A high-stress day, for example, is a poor day for criticism. Everyone's patience is strained. It would be nearly impossible to find the leisure to provide detailed examples of the misdeed and engage in an extended discussion. Put it off until the time is right.

* Invite participation. Involve the person about to be criticized in developing the solution. Make your meeting a dialog, not a lecture. Ask how the employee might have handled things differently, what might work better in a similar situation, and what might be done to facilitate change. A person who develops a plan and becomes psychologically invested in achieving it is more amenable to doing so--far more than one who mutters, "My supervisor said I have to." Involvement activates the thinking and problem-solving ability of the person being criticized.

Anyone who is asked to change hears a voice inside that wonders, "What's in it for me?" Knowing this, the skilled critic offers incentives. The two greatest ones, money and career advancement, are precious commodities in the clinical laboratory.

Internal incentives, which can include anything that excites a person about work, are more highly motivational than external incentives but can be difficult to uncover. To offer internal incentives successfully, you must find out what makes the individual tick. For example, one person will be motivated by being put in charge of a special project, while another will consider such responsibility a punishment. Other internal motivators include the opportunity to perform a diversity of tasks, troubleshoot certain instruments, or serve on a committee.

* Explore personal interests. One of the most creative ways to give coaching/criticism is to use analogies that relate to the person's outside interests. In one laboratory, for example, the receptionist had a problem getting along with certain technologists and physicians. She expected everyone to behave the way she wanted.

One day the chief technologist took her aside and asked a series of questions about her hobby. The conversation went something like this:

"Are the pieces you use in making quilts all the same?" the chief technologist asked.

The receptionist considered. "No," she said, "a quilt wouldn't be beautiful if all the pieces were the same."

"how are they different?"

"They're different in size, shape, and color. Some of the prettiest ones have all kinds of textures."

"The people who work in this lab and the people who come in to use our services are a lot like those quilt pieces," the chief technologist continued. "It's the differences that make us interesting, too. Part of your job is to figure out how to deal with people who have a different approach, those who don't seem to quite fit the 'pattern' when you first meet them. It will take a lot of creativity on your part to deal with all these different kinds of people--a lot like designing and fitting together the pieces of one of your quilts."

The receptionist, looking thoughtful, agreed. In the months that followed, her behavior gradually changed. She became more patient and less rigid in her expectations of others.

* Learning a lesson. Another example comes from a superb supervisor who influenced me early in my career. She named one of my less desirable traits in those days--a tendency toward arrogance and a short temper, especially when others didn't live up to my expectations--and asked whether I thought I could change it. What could I say, "No, I'm too rigid"? I replied, "Well, maybe." She said to try it for just one week. Dubiously, I agreed.

My supervisor's next question astonished me: She asked whether I liked flowers. Since I had been working at the facility for only two months, I was surpised that she knew this about me. I answered, "Yes--in fact, gardening is one of my hobbies."

She smiled and said, "Good. To make it more interesting and fun, if you manage to change your behavior this week, on Friday I will give you a rose as a reward."

My first reaction was, "One rose! She must think I can be bought pretty cheaply!" At the same time I thought, "I wonder what color?"

That Friday she did something totally unanticipated. Ten minutes before quitting time, she called the staff together and asked whether anyone had noticed how hard I had worked that week to improve my behavior. Of course they had--I'd been considerably less arrogant! Everyone was smiling and nodding. Then the supervisor held out a red American Beauty rose that she had been holding behind her back. As she handed it to me with a flourish, she announced that I was the rose of the department that week. That gesture was better than any graduation present I had ever received.

To correct my behavior, my supervisor had used many fine techniques. She focused on the future without overemphasizing my past mistakes. She asked questions instead of issuing commands or telling me what to do. She set a realistic time frame for change. To motivate me, she employed her knowledge of my interest in flowers, choosing a reward that would be especially meaningful to me.

She also took the process a step farther. By holding a public ceremony at which my coworkers could support my improved behavior, she made sure I wouldn't easily slide back.

No one changes a chronic bad habit completely in such a short time. During the weeks that followed, whenever I fell back into arrogance, whoever observed it would jokingly say, "I guess this isn't a rose week." I would laugh, relax, and "behave."

Besides helping me to improve personally, my supervisor provided me with a fine example of creative criticism. Thoughfully, one professional in a a management position had acted as a catalyst to produce change in another professional. She had avoided stimulating the negative reactions that many managers fear they will create if they express criticism. No hostility, defensiveness, tears, or misunderstanding characterized our encounter.

When done well, employing a strategy developed in advance, giving criticism can actually be a pleasant experience. As you prepare to do so, reflect on the guidelines listed in Figure I.

Emerson said that people want a leader who will help them become all they can be. Fulfilling that ideal are those who assist their colleagues in developing their own potential while improving the workplace environment at large. Perhaps to their own surprise, their criticism is not resented but appreciated.

The author, a specialist in communications and leadership based in Orinda, Calif., frequently gives management seminars and workshops.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Handling Criticism, part 1; includes guidelines for preparing creative criticism
Author:Harmon, Shirley
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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