Career Testing
Career Testing
Career Testing
LEADERSHIP / JUL. 28, 2014
version 3, draft 3

The Difference Between Criticizing Your Employees and Shutting Them Down

I’ve worked on both ends of the spectrum: as an employee, I’ve had my work criticized and I’ve had ideas shut down by employers. I used to have a boss who would shut down his employees by telling them things like “Why don’t you just stick to your job,” or “You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.” These types of managers aren’t great leaders, and more importantly, they really hurt businesses. But sometimes managers have a hard time telling when they’re being too critical or when the employee is just overly sensitive to criticism.

I’ve also been a manager of a team, and I’ve had to give some pretty harsh feedback to employees. As a manager, these are a couple of things I did to make sure an employee or intern wasn’t feeling like I was just tossing their idea or work to the wind.

Check your body language

People have written numerous books about body language and most of what they say is true—human beings take signals from each other using body language. If you’re a manager delivering criticism, your body language is going to set and maintain the tone of the conversation. Your employee is going to react to your body language, so it’s key to keep these things in mind.

  • Look at them. If you’re busy typing away or reading something on your monitor, the employee is probably going to feel like you’re not paying attention to them. While this may be common sense to some, it can be difficult to keep yourself from wandering, especially if you’re friendly or familiar with the employee.
  • Control your expressions. If an employee slips up and says something you wouldn’t necessarily deem as the most brilliant thing you’ve ever heard, rolling your eyes or chuckling may send that employee back to their desk with an intense grudge.
  • Look over the work with them. In writing, often times it helped me to look at a piece together with an intern or employee in order to ensure we weren’t miscommunicating, and that they weren’t taking criticism personally. Give your criticism a physical target to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Sometimes, body language has nothing to do with why your employees feel like you’re just blowing them off. Some managers can really get a grip on power trips and authority, and that can lead to a lot of resentful employees.

You may not even know when it happens, but power trips are incredibly obvious to everyone around you, even if they aren’t directly involved.

If you’re shutting down ideas, stop

I’ve had people come to me with pitches and ideas more times than I can count, and it doesn’t make sense in a business context to accept and pursue every single idea pitched. Most employers and employees understand that. However, even if an idea obviously isn’t feasible, don’t shut down employees with sarcasm or jokes. Take what they say seriously.

In one instance, I was working on a project with my manager and a co-worker. The co-worker pitched an idea in casual conversation while we were working, and my manager said something along the lines of “That’s really stupid, have you spent a lot of time on that?” The expression on my co-worker’s face said it all: he was incredibly offended and probably had some bruised feelings over such a harsh statement.

As a manager, remember that even casual conversations (at lunch, just chit-chatting in the office, whatever) are still professional conversations you’re having with an employee. Shutting down ideas can ultimately lead to a lot of pent up frustration around the office, and more importantly, those shut-down ideas can come back to bite you later. My ex co-worker is now running his own business based on the idea he originally pitched to my manager.

Always make a point of being polite, factual, and professional. I’ve even seen some managers writing down responses before the questions even come up, just so they’re prepared. Thinking of certain responses and statements beforehand can keep things from getting too personal or too heated.

If you tell an employee that you’ll look in to making their idea a reality, then deliver on it

False promises are just another way to lie, and trust me, employees remember. If an employee pitches an idea to you, follow up a week or so later with some hard facts about why their idea won’t really work, or tell them you’ll recommend it to your boss and get the ball rolling. Making these types of moves for your employees can really establish trust and loyalty between you. Plus, it creates a healthy, innovative environment for everyone else.

Being too harsh with criticism or blowing off employees can really dampen spirits around the office and may even prevent employees from communicating important issues with you. It can keep them from asking for help because they’re afraid of what you might say.

If you feel you’ve been too critical, always apologize, even if the employee says they didn’t take it in a negative way. Apologizing and recognizing that your criticism may have been too harsh can show employees that you’re self-aware and willing to fix mistakes.

Creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by Alan Cleaver.

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