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Why a Boss Should Avoid Criticizing Employees

Most of us have experienced the frustration of being let down by someone we depended on. When it happens at work, your first impulse may be to criticize the person who has disappointed you. Before you do, may I give you a little criticism?

If you are like most people, you probably cringe at the idea of receiving criticism. While many of us find it difficult to hear criticism, it can be even more unpleasant to be on the receiving end of non-verbal criticism such as rolling eyes, head shaking, or disapproving facial expressions. 

Yet many managers are not aware of the effects criticism has on employees. With few exceptions criticism simply does not work as a way of improving someone's overall behavior.

One reason criticism does not work is due to a fundamental difference in how people perceive the causes of their own and others' actions. Research by behavioral scientists has found most of us have "Actor-Observer Bias," where we think our own behavior is caused by forces outside ourselves, but others' behavior is caused by internal factors. 

So while you may perceive the cause of an employee's late report was laziness, the employee may believe it resulted from not having clear instructions or not getting enough support from co-workers. Is it any wonder the employee may react negatively if you express disapproval? 

Yet criticism often appears to work. An employee who has been criticized may quietly listen to it then alter their behavior to start doing things the way the boss wants. Everyone is happy, right?

Not quite. An employee who feels put down may be seething inside, just waiting for the opportunity to "get even". 

The need for employees to balance the scales is a little known but important principle of managing people. For most employees it simply means ensuring they feel fairly treated, and that the rewards of their job outweigh the costs.

Most people keep a mental scorecard for each of their relationships. According to Louis V. Imundo, author of The Effective Supervisor's Handbook, some of the things employees consider costs of working are: 

  • loss of freedom
  • loss of the opportunity to do something else
  • stress
  • monotonous work
  • office politics
  • long work hours
Among the rewards are: 
  • salary
  • benefits
  • job security
  • challenging work
  • sense of accomplishment
  • flexible work schedule
  • recognition for a job well done
As long as an employee perceives that the rewards of their job are at least equal to the costs, they will continue to come to work and do a good job.

When a manager is critical, it adds a tremendous weight to the cost side of the scales. 

To most employees, constant criticism far outweighs any rewards from a job. 
I have seen companies go to great lengths to try to retain employees by offering more vacation time, higher salaries, better job titles and greater job flexibility when reducing criticism would go much further toward keeping employees happy.

Most employees who are criticized but decide to remain will find a way to balance the scales. To "even things out" they may:

  • take longer lunches
  • make more personal phone calls
  • take extra days off
  • go on sick leave
  • come in late
  • leave early
  • simply not try as hard
An employee who under other circumstances might be willing to work late or go the extra mile for their employer may be "unavailable" to help the person who criticizes them.

While someone may remain for a while in a relationship where they face frequent disapproval, most people who feel criticized will eventually leave. 

University of Washington professor John Gottman has studied communication patterns in married couples and is able to predict with 94% accuracy which ones will divorce. He has found that criticism is one of four communication behaviors (the others are defensiveness, avoidance and contempt) that leads straight to divorce court if it happens often enough. 

If someone who has vowed to stay "until death do us part" won't put up with criticism, it's no wonder most employees won't either. Most will eventually take their talents elsewhere.

So if criticism doesn't work, what does?

Through extensive experiments, psychologist B.F. Skinner found that the most effective way to get the behavior we want is through praise instead of criticism. Skinner found praise reinforces the good things people do, while negative behaviors tend to fade due to lack of reinforcement. 

Many people are hungry for appreciation and will repeat behavior that is rewarded. If you notice people are not going the extra mile for you, a solution may be to focus on the things they are doing right and praise them for it. For greatest impact, give your praise immediately and make it specific

Reward even small steps in the direction you want. Because criticism is so damaging, Gottman says you need to give at least five positive comments or gestures to outweigh a single negative one. (Other research has found that praise should be given intermittently rather than automatically or it will eventually be taken for granted.)

In any relationship, it helps to save the negative feedback for serious problems that need to be corrected quickly. You can give feedback in a way that helps someone improve their behavior without feeling they have been personally attacked.

Point out the behavior that needs to be changed without automatically attributing it to a personal flaw such as laziness or a bad attitude. Assume the employee wants to do a good job, and support the employee by removing any barriers to doing the job. Be a coach, rather than a critic. And make sure you don't communicate disapproval non-verbally.

By reducing criticism and increasing praise you can tip the scales in your favor.

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