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What to Say When Your Employee Makes a Mistake

Jeffrey was the CEO of a hedge fund, and he was upset about some poor trades that Tom, one of his portfolio managers, made. He called Tom into his office. (This is a real example with real people, but I’ve changed their names.)

“Those trades were a terrible idea! What were you thinking?” Jeffrey asked Tom.

The conversation quickly went downhill. With that first question, it would have been hard for it to go any other way.

Why was it a bad way to start? “What were you thinking?” is a past-focused question. When Tom explains his thinking to Jeffrey, he’ll reinforce his mistake and sound defensive because his thinking was problematic and led to poor results. He doesn’t necessarily think the same way now, of course.

Let’s play it out. Tom will explain why he made that trade, and Jeffrey will get angry at his poor judgment. Then they’ll both leave the conversation frustrated and disheartened (which is, predictably, exactly what happened).

What could Jeffrey have done differently? A better choice would have been to avoid talking about the past and, instead, ask Tom about the future: “How will you do it differently next time?”

This kind of future-focused question allows Tom to acknowledge his mistake and demonstrate his learning. It will reinforce both people’s confidence in Tom’s abilities while also giving Jeffrey the opportunity to point out any further problematic patterns in Tom’s thinking — in a way that could help Tom make better decisions in the future instead of just making him feel bad in the present.

Another advantage of a future-focused question? It’s faster and more reliable because you’re removing one step in the learning process. Rather than going over your mistake and then (hopefully) applying the learning to a future situation, you go straight to the application.

Why don’t we all do this intuitively? Because, in the moment, we’re not feeling it. What we’re feeling is angry, and probably a little scared, frustrated, and annoyed. And then we blurt out, “What were you thinking?”

We do it in order to make ourselves feel better. We ask that past-focused angry question because our emotional overload in the situation is simply too much. We burst. But that’s not great leadership, and it’s not great communication. When we lead and communicate, we’re not doing it for ourselves; we’re doing it to help others improve.

Which means we need to tolerate our difficult emotions so they don’t overwhelm us, so they don’t get in the way of our intended impact on others.

Emotional courage is the willingness to tolerate all feelings. It’s entirely developable, and developing it increases your ability to lead effectively, get business results, communicate in a way that inspires others, and make the impact you’re trying to make. How do I know? My company, Bregman Partners, measured those changes in people who increased their emotional courage at our Leadership Intensive.

It’s one thing to know how to communicate in a way that inspires others and brings out their best. It’s another to actually do it, in the heat of the moment, when your emotions are high.

Here are a few keys to making it happen:

  1. When you feel emotional, be suspicious of any instinctive reaction. Before saying or doing anything, pause and take a breath.
  2. Pose a silent question to yourself: What is the outcome you want your next move to achieve? In other words, what do you want to happen as a result of your communication? Make sure you get to a real outcome. If your answer is that you want the other person to feel bad, ask yourself why. What are you hoping will result from their feeling bad? If your hopeful response is that they will make better decisions next time, then that is the outcome you’re going for. (The feeling-bad part is how you think they will get there — but you’re wrong.)
  3. Decide what you will do or say that will most likely lead to your ultimate outcome. Often, what you’ll find is the conversation that holds the greatest likelihood of getting to your ultimate outcome is about the future, not the past.

If you’re a leader, and you’re dissatisfied with someone’s performance, take that breath, identify the outcome you want, and then ask them what they plan to do in the future.

And if you’re Tom? If you’ve made a mistake and your manager asks you Jeffrey’s ill-advised question: “What were you thinking?

As I mentioned, it would be hard for the conversation to go well. Hard, but not impossible.

Even though your manager is asking about the past, it’s your turn to take that breath and ask yourself what outcome you want. Then, your best move is to ignore the question asked and, instead, answer the question that wasn’t asked: the future-focused one. “What was I thinking?” you could say. “Clearly, not the right things. But here’s what I would do differently next time…”


Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people become better leaders, create more effective teams, and inspire their organizations to produce great results. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Leading with Emotional Courage. He is also the host of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To identify your leadership gap, take Peter’s free assessment.

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How to Deliver Criticism So Employees Pay Attention

In my college days I ranked among the top 10 women divers in the United States. I got that far not just because I worked hard — practicing every day in four-to-six-hour sessions — but also because I had an extremely tough coach who routinely offered both caring support and sharp criticism. Early in our relationship he explained how it would work: “When I stop yelling is when you’d better start to worry.” And I understood: Because he believed in me, he would push me — hard.

Strategies for coaching athletes don’t always work for executives trying to manage employees. But when it comes to delivering criticism, I do think some best practices translate. Used correctly, criticism can improve performance, enhance trust and respect, and advance the achievement of mutual goals. Used incorrectly, it can be toxic to a relationship.

How can you increase the likelihood that your employees will perceive the criticism you offer them as helpful and well-intended and be more willing to act on it, as I was with my diving coach? Based on my sports experience with him and my current work as an executive coach, I’ve developed four guidelines:

Engage the person in a specific solution. All too often managers offer criticism in general terms, leaving the receiver to guess what remedy is expected.

Good coaches are, by contrast, extremely specific: “Straighten your left leg” or “Be sure to spot the palm tree before you open your somersault tuck.” They encourage the athlete to problem-solve with them: “What felt off on that dive?” or “What could you do to get that leg straighter or start that twist earlier?”

Such an approach is equally effective in the workplace. Take, for example, the director of a large hospital who received complaints that a new manager was too abrupt in meetings and was failing to respond to requests in a timely fashion. Instead of taking the woman to task and explaining how she should change, the director explained the situation and asked her what might be done about it. She said, “It’s important for you to make good first impressions, but I’ve heard that some people think you’re too terse and not getting back to them quickly enough. How do you think you might change your behavior to shift those perceptions?” The manager suggested a few ideas and immediately implemented them.

Engaging employees in a specific solution ensures they’ll get it right next time, communicates respect for their opinions, and builds their confidence.

Link the criticism to what’s most important to the employee. My coach knew I wanted to please my parents. After all, they sacrificed a lot to allow me to pursue my dream of one day being in the Olympics. So, during diving workouts, if I was goofing off, all my coach had to say to get me focused was, “Do you think what you are doing right now is going to make your parents proud of you and get you into the Olympics?”

The same tactic can be used with employees. As an example, consider someone who cares about being respected by peers but is habitually 10 minutes late to weekly staff meetings and often blames her tardiness on her busy schedule. A manager might simply reprimand her — either nicely (“Please make more of an effort to be on time”) or sharply (“Do we need to get you a new watch?”). But a more effective strategy is to say something like: “How do you think coming in late affects your reputation with your colleagues?”

If employees see the link between the criticism and the things they care about personally, they’ll be more receptive to it.

Keep your voice and body language neutral. Coaches do yell sometimes; mine would bark at me from across the pool when I’d botched an easy dive. At times, managers can motivate with a raised voice and expressive gestures as well — to get across a we-can-do-better message.

But, ideally, workplace criticism is far more effective when delivered in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, with a relaxed facial expression and with neutral body language. That’s how the hospital director spoke to her new manager. (It’s also how my coach and I typically discussed how I could improve.)

An unemotional delivery sends a message that the criticism is simply part of doing business.

Heed individual preferences. My coach knew I liked to hear what he thought of each dive. I preferred that he be direct and to the point so that I had a clear understanding of what I needed to do differently.

Employees also have feedback preferences. One regional sales manager I know often accompanies her sales associates on client visits. Over time, she learned that some reps wanted her advice on their customer interactions immediately, while others preferred that she observe a day’s worth of calls and deliver comprehensive feedback the next morning at breakfast.

Early on, before your employees have a chance to do anything that requires criticism, ask them how they prefer to receive feedback. Should you give it immediately or postpone it to another time? Do they prefer an email or an in-person talk? If it’s the latter, should it be in your workspace, theirs, or a neutral spot?

A soon-to-be-published study conducted by the National Management Association and my firm found that 98% of managers believe it is important to be open and receptive to criticism, but that’s easier said than done. When bosses follow these guidelines, employees are much more likely to make good on the goal of welcoming negative feedback.

Deborah Bright is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., an executive coaching and training organization, and the author of six books, including The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/01/how-to-deliver-criticism-so-employees-pay-attention?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=16873889&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=982229614&spReportId=OTgyMjI5NjE0S0

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