How to Criticize for Positive Results: Really!

Yesterday a 20-something client of mine who I’ll call Allison arrived at the office in tears. Her boss at the retail establishment where she works had called her out in front of a customer. It was not just embarrassing but confusing for the young woman since the supervisor ended her criticism by saying, “I’m just trying to help you.” Hmmmm.

We all know someone who we would really like to help improve. Chances are you have had no difficulty identifying or even pointing out the other person’s  shortcomings and have maybe even felt you were helping by doing so, whether by writing comments on a paper or giving an oral performance review.

Negative emotions are focused on survival. In the case of Allison, the negative-emotion driven combination of anger (Fight back!!) and fear (What next??) and shame (Hide me!) froze her. She could not do much but take the hit. The manager who berated Allison actually went back another time to criticize her.

“You must try harder.”

There is a perverse cruelty to asking someone to just try harder without being sure that the person understands or can perform the desired work. The second time around, Allison tried to defend herself, and as you might imagine, this angered the manager rather than helping her to see another point of view, or as Allison called it through her anger, “logic”. By now Allison was frozen by her humiliation, trying to hold back tears, and unable to process new information.

What if the manager had focused on Allison’s needs and some concrete learning goals, ones that tapped into positive emotions? Positive emotions expand the possible scope of action a person may take as opposed to focusing on self-protection. This can improve capacities like conscientiousness, listening and collaboration which can lead to improved performance.

“Anyone can do this if they try.”

According to Allison, her supervisor said the error she made in a sales transaction was “Sales Associate 101” and amounted to “insubordination” because “she should have known better.” It is hard to learn and “know better” if you are merely told that you are not applying enough effort or are exhibiting moral failure.

What might have happened if the supervisor had taken a broader and more compassionate approach? At the least, calling her out in front of customers could be avoided.

I like these four steps for asking for what you want.

I noticed ……. (what you did not like, but stated as a fact)

I felt ……. (what this was like for you, without projecting onto others)

I would like ……. (what you want the other person to do)

Will you …….? (measurable behavior)

Let’s check in again (set the time)

The next time you are tempted to call someone out, try these steps (privately) instead. And remember to set a time to check-in and reflect on progress!

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