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Chastise if you must, but gently

But there is something called criticising constructively. This falls directly within the gamut of business etiquette because it can be a great performance tool in an organisation, writes Ranjan Acharya.

india Updated: Jun 15, 2007 05:04 IST
Ranjan Acharya

It is a Monday morning. The manager enters his office with the prospect of a long week ahead. Suddenly, the phone rings and there is an angry customer at the other end. The customer is at his vitriolic best and harsh words tumble out in perfect flow. The customer ends his one sided conversation by banging down the phone. The manager is left shaking with fury. When he recovers, he calls a junior and lets his hostility loose. The junior is perplexed. It was only yesterday that the manager was praising her. She cannot understand how she turned into a complete nincompoop in his eyes overnight.

This could happen anywhere and on any day. Passing on criticism in a burst of anger is similar to smashing a mosquito that bites us. The pain of the bite remains, but somehow it feels better that to have eliminated the source of the pain. But this kind of criticism confuses the person it is directed at, and can be very demoralising.

But there is something called criticising constructively. This falls directly within the gamut of business etiquette because it can be a great performance tool in an organisation. In fact, continuous feedback, both positive and negative helps people excel and overcome their limitations. In the book “What Your Boss Doesn’t Tell You Until it is Too Late,” Robert Branson says our “behavioural quirks can and will limit the degree to which we benefit from our best and most exceptional qualities”. Ramesh Emani, President, Product Engineering Solutions, Wipro Technologies, echoes this feeling when he says, “a person's strengths will help him rise in the initial part of his career. But his weaknesses will decide the point at which he stops rising.” Managers, who care about the growth of their juniors, thus have to learn the art of criticising responsibly before their juniors hit an irreversible career road block. But while supervisors are willing to do this comfortably in the heat of anger, they shy away from doing the deed in cold blood. That is one of the reasons why most managers keep appraisal discussions pending for as long as they can or hand over appraisals, looking in some other direction, with very superficial remarks, like “Great job done. Keep it up.” Yet, confronting development areas is one of the most important tasks of a manager.

So, how does one criticise responsibly? Here are a few tips:

Criticise the behaviour and not the person. Any criticism directed at the person will be met with defensiveness.
It is important to describe the context of the behaviour. Why is it right or wrong? What consequences will it have on the business or on other people?
Speak of the suboirdinate's strengths and positive attributes as well. Strengths recognised not only give the person confidence but also the energy to change. But do not dilute the criticism with so much praise that the person does not know whether she was praised or criticised.
It is important to ask what the person himself or herself thinks of the behaviour and the situation. It not only gives an opportunity to understand the situation better but also builds ownership for the problem.
Be sensitive to subtle nuances of change in the expression of the person. Some people do not show they are hurt but they are.
Separate emotion from facts. If the negative feedback is given in anger, then people remember the emotion and discount the facts.

Finally, keep the criticism appropriate to the situation. There is no point emulating a Dementor in Harry Potter series that sucks away all hope. It is impossible for a person to change if the message given is that he or she is incorrigible.


Ranjan Acharya is Senior Vice President – Corporate Human Resources Development at Wipro Corporation