March 18, 2011

Criticize the outcome, not the person

For many leaders, managers and parents, giving criticism is a fine art. 

Go too lightly, and you aren't doing your job.  Lean too heavy and you can demoralize someone who's really giving his all.  Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "the leader's role is to define reality, then give hope."  So true.  Applies to criticism as well.  

Part of your Emotional Talent arsenal is the ability to give feedback to help your people improve or succeed without unduly creating negative emotions.  The way to do that is to follow a few rules: 

1 - Wait a little while before issuing criticism: Let it simmer, or at least let your first wave of emotions subside.  If you can, sleep on it before you act. 

2 - NEVER use email to issue criticism.  It's very weak at relaying your intentions (coach or dictator?).  Have the guts to give it face to face or at least over the phone.  This will increase your effectiveness by 500% according to Mehrabian's research on how others decode our messages for intent. 

3 - Objectify failure.  When a product turns out wrong, it's still a thing.  When an event doesn't come off as it should, it's still just a thing.  Too often, we personalize it, associating people with the #fail. To that I say, "Criticize the outcome, not the person."  One CEO at a software company used to gather this development team around a conference table when a product launch failed, putting a box in the middle for everyone to deposit "project artifacts" such as discs, mock ups, emails, etc.  He had each person take an object out of the box and talk about the why-it-happened and how-you-feel about it.  It really worked - sucking the funk out of the room and focusing on 2.0.  

4 - Last but not least, don't be Waffly when you give criticism.  If you are going to say the outcome was below expectations, don't hedge it with a bunch of might's maybe's or other wamby pamby talk.  You need to be very clear, or you'll end up in a debate, giving forgiveness way to early or losing any credibility for future feedback.  Your folks need to know that you are strong in your beliefs, even if you are thoughtful in your delivery. 

For more, read Crucial Conversations a GREAT book on the subject. 




This is definitely the best tactic I have heard toward giving criticism. It manages to get the point across with all the necessary gravity, but still keep morale and team cohesion solid. A valuable lesson any leader can benefit from.


Thanks so much for such a helpful post! Many times we are reluctant to say what really needs to be said for fear of hurting someone. However, this is a good reminder that, if done properly, we can focus the criticism where it needs to be focused, and provide hope for the individual.


Great article Tim! I like what the CEO practiced with his team. Acknowledged the #fail and moved on. And your point on the email - bravo! The gutless use of email for discussing sensitive issues is the bane of many relationships.

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