Whether you have to approach an employee about needed improvement in job performance or softer skills such as team play, it can be difficult to truly engage the person. No one likes to hear criticism.


Even constructive criticism can cause an employee to tune out and not hear what's being said. They may focus more, in the conversation and on the fact of the criticism itself, not on the issue and its resolution.

How do you have an improvement-related conversation that is heard? It's a key part of leadership skills.

Generate an Open-Ended Question About Solutions

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Deborah Blight, a former nationally-ranked diver, drew parallels between the performance-based criticism given to athletes and best practices in giving performance-based criticism to employees.

Her first suggestion? "Engage the person in a specific solution." There are really two parts to this. First, focus on the specific. Give them a specific example of the behavior that needs to be remedied. Do subordinates fear them? Are they chronically late to meetings?

Second, engage the employee in a solution. Don't rely on the carrot of generally improved performance or the stick of poor performance reviews. Ask, for example, open-ended questions about how the employee might work to change perceptions so that subordinates aren't intimidated or team members frustrated.

A genuinely open-ended question requires employees to generate their own solutions. It requires them to think through others' perceptions vis-à-vis their actions.

Centering the question on perceptions avoids one of the key perils of criticism: having it seem too personal and too close.

Focus on What's Important to the Employee

Another key ingredient to being heard is to focus on what's important to the employee. Someone arriving chronically late to meetings, for example, is difficult to be viewed as very invested in being seen as a good team player. They simply don't see lateness as letting the team down.

They may, in fact, see it as bonding with the team about the relatively unimportant (to them) warm-up to team projects. If you focus your criticism on the detriment to teamwork an employee should be much more motivated to shape up.

Demeanor, Demeanor, Demeanor

Some of making employees hear feedback is demeanor related. A Forbes article, for example, suggests that you address the employee as you would address someone you respect.

It's a bit of theater. It's likely your tone, demeanor, and body language shift a bit when you talk to someone you genuinely respect. You indicate that you are confident they can understand and come up with a solution - and you expect them to do that. Doing the same to your employee will promote engagement and buy-in.

Always keep your tone and demeanor neutral, too. Even if the employee shrugs off the issue or gets defensive, do not react.

Offering constructive criticism is far easier, and far more likely to be heard if you implicitly ask employees to focus on the issue and to become involved by offering their own solutions via asking open-ended questions. Know what's important to your employees and treat them with dignity and respect.