Straight Talk At Review Time

By Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D.

More than 70% of managers admit they have trouble giving a tough performance review to an underachieving employee, according to a survey by Sibson Consulting and WorldatWork. How do you learn the art of delivering constructive criticism?

Let's consider why courage is necessary to overcome our reluctance to conduct such a fundamental business interaction. There's the fear of hurting the employee's feelings or being perceived as mean. There's the awareness of what it's like to be on the receiving end of a poorly delivered performance review. And since the toughest feedback usually touches on deeply ingrained behaviors and personality traits, there's a fear of the intimacy required when offering observations that hit so close to home.

Giving feedback is indeed more art than science. The trick is to deliver the message fully, candidly, and in a timely way while making it palatable and readily usable by the employee. Remember that there's a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. The former involves offering support and alternative behaviors along with the feedback. To deprive employees of this shirks responsibility. The latter is a form of punitive aggression and has no place in the workplace.

Don't wait until the last possible moment to deliver feedback; make it a regular part of your one-on-one interactions with employees rather than an obligatory exchange prior to discussing next year's compensation. Shaming someone—by giving feedback in front of colleagues or by attacking their character—will make them dislike you rather than incorporate the feedback you gave. Confrontations should be a method of last resort. Some leaders have a knack for giving the hardest news in a way that leaves employees feeling understood and good about the interaction. One way to do that is by sharing a personal experience with the same sort of developmental challenge, rather than making the employee feel they're the only person in the world with this problem.

The last thing you want is a performance discussion in which the form, rather than substance, of the message increases the employee's resistance to it. While some executives say "bring it on" to the unvarnished truth, in my experience they're in the minority. Alas, those most welcoming of constructive feedback are the ones who probably need it the least.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at analyzethis@businessweek.com

Edited by Dean Foust

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