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Critical Choices

The question is that while managers like to give positive feedback, most people are afraid to give negative feedback, even in private, writes Ranjan Acharya.
Hindustan Times | By Ranjan Acharya
UPDATED ON APR 02, 2008 11:37 PM IST

In Joseph’s Heller’s epochal book,

Catch -22

, we have a character named Orr, who finds two crab apples somewhere. He walks with them in his cheeks until Yossarian, the main character in the novel, spies them there and makes him take them out. Then, Orr finds two horse chestnuts and slips those in until Yossarian detects them and orders him to take crab apples out of his mouth again. Orr grins, replies as he pulls them out that they are not crab apples but horse chestnuts and that they are not in his mouth anymore but in his hands.

Though this is a fictitious anecdote, most people are familiar with the circular path that criticism follows. Praise in public, criticize in private, was the advice given by Dale Carnegie. It is a very good dictum. The question is that while managers like to give positive feedback, most people are afraid to give negative feedback, even in private. Nobody, it appears, likes giving negative feedback just like no one likes receiving it. The reason is simple: negative feedback leads to retaliation in some way or the other. Orr was sophisticated, but others may not be.

It is a tough choice either way. Remaining silent perpetuates mistakes. Confronting needs courage. So, what should one do?

While criticizing in private is good advice, more needs to be said. It is not only “what” is criticized that is important but also “how” the criticism is done that makes a difference. Based on all the wisdom I have garnered from various sources over the years, I would like to share a few tips:

Criticize the behavior and not the person. Any criticism that affects the self worth of an individual is likely to be rejected without examination. Do not use words like you “never” do this or you “always” make mistakes.

While criticizing, ensure that it is “direct, appropriate and relevant”. Emotion in the tone of the voice can override the sanity of the words used.

Be future-focused. Drawing attention to the past only makes the mistake even more difficult to face up to. Ask the person what are the two things the he or she would like to do moving forward. This focuses the mind on “change”, not “helplessness”.

Use the opportunity to coach – people are more ready to change after an error. But do not do it when the wounds are too raw.

Do not make criticism a habit. Also catch people doing right. It is important to be seen as fair for the criticism to be received well.

Most important, do not postpone confrontation. Do it before it becomes impossible to do. As PG Wodehouse keeps saying, “He who hesitates is lost.”

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