Employee Engagement without Criticism: Feedback with Civility to Protect Productivity

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tonight I heard a joke about criticism.  Before you criticize someone be sure to “walk a mile in their shoes.”  When you are done you will be a mile away, they won’t be able to hear you, and you will have a new pair of shoes. 

Criticism damages engagement.  Leaders who rely on it for performance feedback will create unseen damage that may never been completely healed and will probably continue to damage performance.

While networking recently asked a colleague to request specific opinions from her boss about a document I was writing.  He responded via email.  His comments seemed harsh, sarcastic, and critical.  He claimed no one would ever want to finish reading my document.  He pointed out a few specific places where he would stop reading and left the impression I should have known this already.  In other words, he accused me of making these mistakes on purpose.  “I would never finish reading this document and neither would anyone else” he said with a sarcastic tone. I was left with the impression that he was annoyed because he arrogantly accused me of making the mistakes just to waste his time.

My immediate reaction was to ignore his advice because it was so accusatory and condescending.  He will probably never know my reactions and, in this case, it probably doesn’t matter because I don’t work with him on any regular basis.  However, his lack of tact and condescending attitude immediately created a chasm between us.  Furthermore, I now have no desire to meet him or work for him in the future.  I will avoid his opinions in the future.  My productivity took a huge drop.  I needed time to recover before I couild take action.

Three Drawbacks

The drawbacks of criticism include a reduction in trust (damaged relationship), a loss of focus on the specific possibilities for change, and a reluctance to communicate in the future.  All three of these factors damage the opportunity for learning and can most often contribute to a lack of motivation or engagement which directly impacts productivity and profitability.  Criticism by senior managers damages employee engagement because it damages the relationship and the possibility for learning.  These are two of the most critical factors for creating an environment of engagement.

Two Types of Criticism

Although it is important to draw a distinction between solicited and unsolicited criticism, all criticism can be damaging depending upon the way it is delivered.  Unsolicited is more damaging because it is completely unexpected.  Solicited at least is requested and somewhat expected. Unsolicited criticism should be avoided.  Solicited should be delivered with data and with a helpful, empathic tone.

Three Things to do Instead

Criticism causes the most damage when the person delivering it carries a certain negative tone of voice.  Second, when the deliverer uses only their opinions and fails to use data the relationship and trust will be damaged.  The use of data will mitigate the sharp edge and prevent the relationship from being cut.  The use of data and probing questions with the right tone of voice (even in an email) will protect the trust and prevent the damage to engagement.

For example, if my colleague’s boss had merely explained, “did you know the sentences could be shorter and if they were, in my experience, it would increase the probability of people reading the entire document?”    The shift to a positive tone and the emphasis on specific data changes the entire impression.  Criticism suggests a lack of caring and indifference.  Sharing data (instead of opinions) while asking probing questions will provide an optimum learning experience.  A positive tone creates a calm and caring environment perfect for learning.

Leaders who want optimum learning and therefore optimum engagement must change their way they deliver performance feedback.  Emphasizing data, using probing questions, using a calm supportive tone, and avoiding opinions will create a learning environment that protects engagement and avoids fear, resentment, and loss of productivity.


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