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10 Tips For Criticising People

If you’re a England-based reader – I hope you enjoyed your long weekend thanks to Monday’s Bank Holiday break. The weather was unusually good here in the West Midlands, I got to attend a couple of parties and I actually kept my work activities to below an hour this weekend – which is some sort of new record for me! On the downside it’s meant I’ve returned to an overflowing inbox, but such is life when you’re self-employed – I still wouldn’t trade it for anything else!

One welcome e-mail I did return to was the latest newsletter from Alan Matthews at Train of Thought (which, if you don’t already subscribe to then I’d highly recommend) in which he lists 10 Tips for Criticising People.

My story

After undertaking an emergency stint as IT Manager for one of my larger sized clients recently, I wish I had come across this list earlier!

The situation came about as the incumbent IT Manager was sidelined, and so I was asked to take on the role of managing the department and it’s staff with immediate effect.

Now what I do every day as an SMB IT Consultant is very similar to an IT Managers day-to-day role. Dealing with end-user issues, completing administrative tasks, handling vendors, and so on. What I don’t do every day is have to manage staff though!

Dealing with personalities

Within a few days of taking on the role, and having to deal with the multiple “personalities” involved, I was ready to tear my hair out! I suddenly remembered why I left the Corporate environment for small business IT Consulting back in 2003 – as having to deal with lack of buy-in at management level, stuck-in-their-ways practices at employee level, and the general bureaucracy and politics of working in a large organisation left me increasingly frustrated.

People don’t like change

One thing I quickly learnt was that getting people, even trained competent IT people, to do new things is very very difficult. I’ve read that it takes an individual almost 30 days of consistently repeating a task for it to become a habit – but I struggled to get the team to do it even twice in a row! Things that I do and take for granted such as setting an end-users expectations for issue resolution, escalating serious problems, constantly re-evaluating and setting new priorities for workload, implementing and following procedures for repetitive daily tasks, handling red-tape, and most of all – communicating – turned into almost confrontational situations when I tried to introduce new methods.

Shocker! People don’t like criticism!

Something else I learnt from this situation was that if somebody says they want to learn and receive constructive criticism – they’re lying – what they really want is constant reassurance!

A couple of sweeping statements there, and yes – I’m well aware I’m not without fault myself, but hey – it’s my blog – love it or leave it. ;-)

Anyway, I tried to be patient and understanding – but I didn’t do too well. Within 30 days I’d had to badger the client into finding a replacement (who I’d imagine is finding the role every bit as challenging as I did, so perhaps it wasn’t just me…) and mercifully returned to my usual SMB IT Consultant duties. The reduction in stress levels was incredible! I love my SMB clients so much! <grin>

So when I read Alan’s list below, I found myself nodding in agreement with more than a few points. I find it’s very difficult to criticise without becoming preachy, and far harder still not to scream “Just ****ing do it like I’ve both asked you to and wrote down how to fifteen times already!” at someone who keeps questioning your working practices! :-)

1. Make sure that you catch people doing things right and comment on those occasions as well as when they do something wrong. Don’t have a situation when the only time you comment on someone’s behaviour or performance is when you are criticising them.

2. Be clear about your motives – are you saying something to help them or could there be another motive? Like what? Well, like making yourself look better or feel better, making a point about your own status, letting off steam because you’re in a bad mood.

3. Stick to the facts – tell someone what they did, why it was not the best thing to do and what you suggest they do next time. Don’t get drawn into personal comments, like ” You’re careless “, or generalisations, like ” You’re always late “. Stick to the person’s behaviour, not their character.

4. Consider the impact of what you say on the other person’s attitude, morale and motivation. If you say something in a way which leaves them feeling dejected, demoralised or annoyed, it is likely to be counterproductive.

5. Don’t get drawn into an argument about what YOU are doing wrong. Sometimes people respond to perceived criticism by hitting back, ” Well, what about YOU!…”

6. Keep the discussion private – there’s an old saying, ” Praise in public, criticise in private. ”

7. Avoid confrontational rhetorical questions – such as, ” How may times have I asked you to…?” Do you really want an answer to this, ” I think it’s about 247 times now “?

These sort of comments can’t help, they only inflame the situation. If you have discussed something before, you can just say, ” I know we had a conversation a while ago about this, but I just felt I needed to raise it again. ”

8. Support, don’t threaten. If you are making a point to try to improve someone’s performance, make some positive suggestions about how they can change and offer help and support. Don’t just criticise or threaten. If you do have to raise the stakes, e.g. if someone is really underperforming and has been told about it before, be very clear about what is going to happen and why, but still offer help.

9. Use phrases such as, ” I need/want/would like you to…” rather than ” you should/ought to/must…” This makes the tone less confrontational and makes you take responsibility for what you are asking.

10. Don’t compare people. This is relevant whether at work or at home. Saying, ” Why can’t you me more like your brother/sister? ” is never a helpful approach.


Thoughts? Leave a comment. And before you ask – I’m not asking for constructive criticism of my IT Managers stint, so don’t bother – I’m really bad at taking criticism myself. ;-)


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