I had the distinct pleasure last week of attending the Louisiana Society of Association Executives annual convention in New Orleans at the historic Hotel Monteleone. During the opening general session on Thursday morning, speaker Gary Golden shared a number of stories about leadership. One had to do with training killer whales, another about coaching a baseball team and a third about raising a daughter.
In each instance, Gary built upon his theory that performance and gratification are inextricably linked to one another (even though they happen to be two different sides of the same coin). Here, performance is defined as the execution or accomplishment of work and gratification is defined as a state of pleasure or satisfaction. (And, generally, when you’re seeking gratification, there are easier ways to obtain it than performing work.)
As the session progressed, I posted a couple of key takeaways to Facebook and Twitter for future reflection. One such post – There’s no such thing as constructive criticism. #LSAE12 – garnered 19 comments within a matter of minutes, as well as a spin-off discussion yielding 19 more. Several comments from the original post follow:
- Really? What is an alternative, positive reinforcement?
- Interesting. How do we point out areas for improvement, ideas to increase performance, etc.? I do agree that the term constructive criticism is not one of my favorites though.
- The key is not making it a criticism of the *person* but rather pointing out the main goals of the project and how the person can achieve those goals. I am not saying berating people for mistakes is the way to go, but let’s not swing too far in the opposite direction. I find that too many people are so afraid of *any* criticism that they often don’t provide feedback people need to improve. That’s why “Everybody Gets a Ribbon” hurts more than it helps.
- I always try and lead with a positive. I just caution people not to overemphasize the positive, because it can backfire. Sometimes, when you over praise and don’t emphasize critical areas for improvement, people won’t work so hard to perfect the imperfections. Really, what it comes down to is different personality styles respond to criticism differently.
- That is an absurd statement. Everyone learns and is motivated in different ways. For some, positive reinforcement is the way to go…personally being praised all the time makes me feel like I am being pandered to. Many people respond to different types of stimulus…such as constructive criticism. I find this to be the case in the workplace, while coaching and in life. The key for an effective manager is figuring out what motivates each employee and utilizing that to help them grow and learn.
Boiled down, these comments argue that:
- Although the term “constructive criticism” may be cliché (and somewhat undesirable), the concept is a necessary evil to encourage performance improvement.
- Emphasis should always remain on the task or the project, rather than on the individual.
- People should be treated disparately in the workplace as everyone responds differently to stimuli such as praise and criticism.
Nevertheless, I believe Gary would stick to his guns and say there are several key steps to getting the most from your employees.
- Hire effectively.
- Assuming you’ve hired effectively, you have surrounded yourself with competent and talented staff that have the best interests in mind for you and your members/clients. Assign projects based upon skills and expertise.
- Each time a project or task is completed (the routine is important), first point out what was done well. And the key here is to do it genuinely. Then offer insights, suggestions and recommendations for performance improvement as the need arises (focusing less on the deficiency and more on the potential for a better future outcome – and perhaps even an improved system, rather than a one-time benefit).
- Finally, gratification yields performance excellence (this is true both at work and at home, incidentally). In other words, happy, satisfied, fulfilled people are more likely to produce quality work than those who are unhappy, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. (Conversely, always point out the worst in people – and productivity will plummet).
The bottom line is that criticism – the act of passing judgment; faultfinding – is not the most direct route to motivating employees. To complicate the issue further, we’re much more likely to point out when a project or task fails to meet expectations (learned behavior?) and generally miss the boat altogether when projects or tasks are completed well (by failing to take the time to acknowledge, praise or compliment).
Moreover, I think Gary would say that “constructive criticism” – loosely defined as criticism or advice that is useful and intended to help or improve something, often with an offer of possible solutions – is simply criticism cloaked by good intentions (or the pretense of good intentions). The fact of the matter is that constructive criticism is still criticism and fails to serve as the most effective human motivator.
So, my question to you is this: What do you make of the phrase: “There’s no such thing as constructive criticism”? Do you agree or disagree – and why? How do you respond to the comments posted by my friends and colleagues? How do you respond to my interpretation of Gary’s position on this matter? As an effective manager, what have you found most effective when it comes to employee morale and motivation?