Cited in CFA Magazine – Corrective Leadership: How Should Managers Use Praise and Criticism to Improve Performance?


Corrective Leadership: How Should Managers Use Praise and Criticism to Improve Performance?

By Lori Pizzani

  • There is a time and place for both positive feedback and constructive criticism.  In general, positive feedback gets people to want to work for you and constructive criticism makes their work better.
  • It is not always the case that you get more with honey than vinegar, but what you do get is usually better when it comes to motivation. This is not always true for quality. And while this paints a black and white picture and, as we all know, the world tends to be gray.  So … tough, bombastic, aggressive managers can get people to work through intimidation, fear and criticism, but the morale of the workforce and the willingness to go the extra mile will be low.  On the other hand, positive, outgoing, inspiring leaders will get their “team” to want to do what is best for the organization.  A few kind words and feedback goes a long, long way.
  • The process of delivering criticism (and praise for that matter) is the most important part.  The act of criticizing or praising is not what really counts, regular, useful feedback is. Comments like this don’t do it: “Nice job.”  “Good work.”  “Not your best work.”  “This is not what I was expecting.”  “I would have done this differently.”  While these kinds of comments on their own will make the recipient feel good or bad, in order to be effective, feedback needs to be timely, specific, and provide a roadmap for what you want next time.  Looking of better is always the key.  Bad work can be improved, and good work can always get better.  Many managers take the path of least resistance and simply praise positive work without letting people know what was good and why they liked the work.  And, unfortunately don’t tell people what they can do to get better.  Reactions to bad work is even worse.  Managers tend to avoid conflict and write middle of the road feedback on evaluations without addressing areas that can be improved.
  • Some of this is tied up in the desire to avoid conflict or hurt people’s feelings.  Some of it is the desire not to “ding” someone in a formal evaluation process that may affect promotion, salary, bonus, or even retention.  I the later scenario is the issue, constructive feedback can still be given directly to the individual without memorializing it in the formal evaluation process.  Telling someone how to improve their writing, speaking, timeliness, attention to detail, work ethic can be done on an ongoing basis directly with the person.  Note, it is critical to tell someone “how” to improve, not simply that they should.  For example, telling someone “your writing could be stronger,” provides little that is helpful.  Conversely, telling someone, “Please take a look at my corrections to your memo.  I would like it if next time your writing was tighter and contained more advocacy.  You’ll see I made the piece shorter.  Your draft marshaled the facts but it was a bit longwinded.”  Or for speaking, “You may have been nervous, but you really need to practice not saying, ‘Ummm,” so much.  Don’t be afraid of a silent pause.  If you don’t know you’re doing it try practicing with a video or tape recorder and listen to yourself.  You’ll hear it and it will improve.”
I was asked to weigh in about the role praise and criticism can play in improving performance in the workplace, and why criticism lingers longer:


“Criticism tends to stay longer because criticism induces fear, and fear produces a lot of powerful emotions,” says Dr. Alicia H. Clark, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washing- ton, DC. Fear affects critical areas of the brain, including the amygdala (which triggers the fight-or-flight response) and the hippocampus (where long-term memories are stored).

Positive feedback is tied to self-esteem, which is the product of trying really hard to do something and succeeding, accord- ing to Clark. “If praise that we receive was about something that we stretched for, we will remember it too,” she says. Trying to avoid the anxiety associated with corrective criticism is a mistake, according to Clark. When people receive criticism, some are put off by it and believe the prob- lem is with the person providing the criticism. A better way is to ask what “the grain of truth” in a comment was. “We have an opportunity to see this setback as a learning experience,” Clark says.

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Alicia H. Clark, PsyD