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Proverbs on Criticizing with Care
Proverbs will help us apply religion where it counts---in the family, in work
and business, in care of our health, and in our relationship with others and
with God. Proverbs is a philosophical book that seeks to
answer the eternal question: How should we live? Proverbs presents to us the
wisdom of God for our daily living. It presents us with a much needed relational
theology. Its moral maxims put religion into the arena of daily relationships.
Kenneth Taylor concluded, “No other [portions of the Word] have such exciting, thoughtful wisdom as the Proverbs.”
The passages below are taken from Michael A Zigarelli’s book “Management by Proverbs,” published in 1999 by Moody Press.
Willie Woods, an electrician and radio repairman for the city of Los Angeles, was not happy with the letter he had just received from his boss. The notice read that he was to appear at an internal hearing to formally respond to questions about the quality of his work.
Six months earlier at his annual review, Woods’ supervisors had raised similar questions, and several times since then Woods had been warned about his performance. Apparently Woods became irate at a few of those discussions. One ended with Woods throwing a chair across the room; during another one, he openly tore up the evaluation sheet. A third time he sat sullen and silent as his supervisors urged him to shape up.
Now, facing a hearing that could result in termination, Woods sought recourse in the most ruthless manner possible. At 10 A.M. on July 19, 1995, Woods walked into the Erwin Piper Technical Center, his place of employment, to confront management about what his union rep described as a feeling of “being picked on and singled out.” After an initial exchange of angry words, Woods went to his locker and returned moments later with a Glock 9 mm semiautomatic pistol. He located office supervisor Anthony Gain, the city’s most veteran employee with fifty-three years of service, pointed the gun at him and fired. Woods then turned, spied supervisor Marty Wakefield, and fired again.
Descending one flight of stairs, he next sought out his immediate supervisors, James Walton and Neil Carpenter. Both were in the office that day. Both were mercilessly gunned down, one in an office, one in a hallway.
Two police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department’s gang unit, who were in the building on other business, followed the sounds of gunfire, tracking Woods to an open area in the back of the building. Woods surrendered to them without incident and was later sentenced to life in prison. None of the four victims made it to the hospital alive.1
The carnage in a Los Angeles office building graphically illustrates a basic reality in managing employee performance: Delivering negative feedback is always a precarious endeavor. Although relatively few employees ever go this ballistic, most do experience anxiety and anger in criticism’s wake. The rebuke goes to the heart of their egos. Many employees feel a negative evaluation embarrasses them; they often perceive it as unfair or inconsiderate, and, as discussed in Principle 13, it can cost them both valuable rewards and job security. And so, sometimes constructively, but often destructively, they respond.
A recent Temple University study confirmed the pervasiveness of the problem. In a survey of 151 Philadelphia-area managers, 98 percent reported some type of aggression in response to negative feedback they had delivered. The behaviors ranged from the silent treatment to stalking, with two-thirds of the worker reactions being primarily verbal in nature.2
But even though addressing underachieving employees is uncomfortable for both manager and employees, from a performance perspective it must be done. Additionally, from a safety perspective, it must be done diplomatically. In the 1990s the media reported more than two dozen high-profile workplace killings.3
Thus employers are increasingly inviting consultants into the workplace to help managers deliver negative feedback more effectively and carefully. For those who prefer the most transcendent brand of advice, though, there is an abundance available and free of charge from the Divine Consultant.
PROVERBS ON IMPARTING NEGATIVE FEEDBACK
Proverbs offers us three connected teachings on imparting criticism in the workplace. For those who must put it into practice, it guides us in what to do before, during, and after communicating the problem to a subordinate.
Before Communicating the Problem
Prior to ever speaking a word of criticism, Proverbs 20:5 reminds us about the attitude of humility and patience that we should bring to the table:
The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters,
but a man of understanding draws them out. (Proverbs 20:5 NIV)
Why has someone underperformed? Why has he been absent too often? What is the reason for her insubordination? Managers continually assume they have the answers to these questions and then unilaterally act upon those assumptions. But this approach may be impetuous, the Scriptures suggest. As managers, we do not always have the answers.
“The purposes of a man’s heart”---his plans, his rationales, and his motives in the original language---”are deep waters.” The latter term appears often in the Old Testament to connote mystery and unfathomability. Something resting in deep water is hidden and hard to discover. Solomon used this metaphor to indicate that the true rationale for someone’s behavior may not be easy to discern. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul added a similar caution: “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11 NIV).
Certainly in a work setting, a manager has limits. A boss’s limited exposure to this individual may prevent him or her from observing mitigating factors. Therefore, the prudent manager avoids hasty conclusions. He chooses instead to humbly assume that there may exist a reason for the subordinate’s action that he has not considered. It is on this assumption that one should commence discussions with problem employees.
As managers and as Christians, our next step, the verse says, is to patiently explore those murky waters. Although this is a complex task, one indeed has a responsibility to identify the root causes and motivations. According to the proverb, “a man of understanding draws them out."
Throughout Proverbs, the “man of understanding” or “of knowledge” is one who respects and reveres God and seeks to follow His path. (For example, see 15:21, 32.) Verse 20:5b reveals to us, then, that an individual with such attributes can, in fact, persevere to draw out those purposes---to bring hidden motives to the surface---as one might draw water from a deep well. It is possible. But, recalling the truth of the first half of the proverb, such a task first requires we draw out the waters with both the humility and patience to listen and to care. The manager should approach any rebuke of a subordinate with the mind-set that this will be a conversation rather than a lecture. The objective is to have a forbearing inquiry instead of an immediate reprimand.
So the thrust of the verse is this: Before the believer ever delivers a word of criticism, he or she lays a constructive foundation by adopting the proper attitude.
While Communicating the Problem
If one does adopt that attitude, implementing the next teaching is quite natural. Proverbs advises us to remember that when it comes time to speak with the subordinate, there is power in the words we use:
Reckless words pierce like a sword,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18 NIV)
One’s choice of words has the power to either escalate or to ameliorate. That is, how we communicate our concern and dissatisfaction can largely determine the trajectory of the conversation: more intense or more cordial. If at any point one recklessly abandons a Christlike attitude, allowing one’s attitudes or emotions---perhaps frustration, aggressiveness, or revenge---free reign to “pierce like a sword,” the discussion can quickly degenerate into something counterproductive. The subordinate usually strikes back, often later and covertly, with his or her own dagger. Workers’ tactics can range from reducing their efforts and poisoning the culture with complaints and gossip, to pilfering from the organization or engaging in any number of other undesirable activities. Whatever their tactics, people find ways to “even the score” with their bosses, thereby escalating the conflict.
If, on the other hand, one is more careful in word choice and in tone---a disposition that flows from the attitude discussed above---one unleashes the power to ameliorate, even to “bring healing.” This is wisdom’s path, the path of diplomacy. In similar proverbs, it is the path of even-temperedness (e.g., Proverbs 17:27 NIV) and gentleness (e.g., Proverbs 15:1 NIV). And this is the path that James, in his typical no-nonsense fashion, pointed us toward when he warned: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26 NIV).
In the act of delivering negative feedback, then, reject the recklessness that may be innate and instead speak with what the proverb calls “the tongue of the wise.”
After Communicating the Problem
Once the boss has determined a problem exists and has sought its root cause, what follows is the question of remedy. Ordinarily, a boss will tell the subordinate what he or she expects in the future and perhaps relate some consequences of noncompliance, but Proverbs 29:19 says that this may not always be sufficient:
A servant cannot be corrected by mere words;
though he understands, he will not respond.
Many know the truth of this verse from frustrating experience with repeat offenders. The expectations set in November’s appraisal interview may seem a distant memory by New Year’s. The better approach, the verse implies, is to follow up with something beyond “mere words.”
Depending on the situation, this could involve almost anything from the more heavy-handed (e.g., demotions, closer supervision, last-chance write-ups) to the more developmental (such as retraining, rehabilitation, mentoring). As noted in Principles 8 and 12, a strong case can be made for the second approach, but as Principle 19 will detail, Scripture does not mandate that employees be retained indefinitely. Accordingly, there’s no mathematical formula here for remediation; rather, one should craft a remedy in the intersection of both organizational and employee needs. Importantly, though, it is wise to use something more than “mere words” to effect that remedy.
SOME TIPS FROM RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
A Consensus Among Textbooks, Journals, and Magazines
In broad strokes, Scripture offers counsel on delivering negative feedback. As we’ve seen, it furnishes general principles on attitude, diplomacy, and remedial action which imply, but do not elaborate upon, the particulars of their day-to-day implementation.
By contrast, the secular literature in this area does just the opposite, tending to focus more on daily practice than on principles. And for a refreshing change, the textbooks, scholarly journals, and practitioner magazines all seem to advance similar advice on the how-to’s of delivering negative feedback.4 What’s even more refreshing is that these practical conclusions appear to be wholly consistent with the proverbial paradigm, making them especially noteworthy for the Christian manager.
Ten lips for Delivering Negative Feedback
The ten elements for delivering negative feedback that are most commonly cited in this literature are as follows:
1. Do it privately. To publicly criticize an employee’s work or behavior is to humiliate the employee. Moreover, in our litigious society, it can even lead to defamation suits. Contrary to the practice of offering praise, which should be done publicly whenever possible (Principle 15), discussions about one’s deficiencies should remain private.
2. Do it personally. It is usually a mistake to deliver criticisms by phone, E-mail, or some other impersonal vehicle. Although these are tempting options given the uncomfortable nature of the discussion, face-to-face conversations allow the manager to observe the employee’s body language (which is often far more telling than what one verbalizes). This may assist the manager in the sometimes arduous task of identifying root problems. Similarly, personal discussion permits the employee to more clearly observe the manager’s concern for both the organization and the employee.
3. Get right to the point. Most employees can sense when their boss has a problem with them. Therefore, when the boss calls in an employee, but then tiptoes around what’s really on his or her mind, it is both transparent and frustrating for the employee.
4. Present the negative feedback in the context of positive performance. Especially in annual performance review meetings, it is essential that the employee understand that his or her manager sees not just the deficiencies, but also the employee’s contribution to the organization. To communicate this, a standard managerial line might be: “I think that you’re doing great with 88 percent of the work I’ve assigned you. What we’re going to talk about in the next few minutes, though, is the other 12 percent.” Outside of formal meetings, the same principle applies. When disciplining or correcting a subordinate, look for ways to contrast the negative behavior with something positive in the employee.
5. Speak in terms of “I,” not “you.” Speaking in the first person is an invaluable tool for minimizing employee defensiveness. Structure your criticisms in terms of how you, the manager, feel, rather than what the subordinate has done. A statement like “I have some concerns about your sales numbers” tends to be less offensive to the receiving ears than “You are not making the sales numbers we need.” Similarly, “I’m not understanding this section of your report” is more palatable than “You’re not making sense in this section of your report.” The first approach communicates essentially the same information, but it puts some onus on the critiquing manager, rather than heaping it all on the subordinate.5
6. Be specific. Abstract criticisms (e.g., “You’re performing well below average”) do not serve a manager’s ends nearly as well as more specific feedback. Rather than categorizing the performance (“well below average”), be specific about what is expected and contrast this with objective facts about what the employee has or has not accomplished. Identifying for the employee this gap between management’s expectations and current performance brings into sharper focus the problem that must be addressed. Moreover, it becomes the basis for a more constructive discussion of how to bridge that gap.
7. Stick to the facts. Sticking to the facts is to be objective and avoid speculative judgments about the causes of misbehavior or underperformance. Instead, ask the employee about the reasons for the behavior/performance and then actively listen to the response.
8. Don’t twist the knife. In any one discussion, there is no need to repeat criticisms. The employee gets the idea. Furthermore, if possible, stick to one problem per conversation and avoid resurrecting old problems previously resolved. Employees often perceive such piling on as unnecessary and unfair.
9. Jointly craft a solution. After presenting the negative feedback, involve the employee in solving the problem. An employee who has helped craft a solution may be more committed to effecting it than one who has a solution thrust upon him or her. Pinpoint the problem and set up some mutually agreeable goals as a baseline against which to evaluate future performance. Also, if appropriate, jointly design a development plan to shape the employee in the proper direction.
10. Offer feedback continuously. Feedback is a tool that should be used more than once or twice a year. In fact, it should ideally be a seamless function. Accordingly, when one sees a subordinate doing something wrong (or right), one should let him or her know about it immediately to correct (or reinforce) the behavior.
A FIRST STEP: THE PROPER ATTITUDE
Negative feedback is elemental to enhancing employee performance. If one does not identify and discuss the areas that require improvement, how can a manager really expect employees to improve?
We have presented ten tips based on findings of various studies. But no matter how much exposure a manager has to this secular wisdom, one is always in jeopardy of ignoring or misapplying it. The reason for this is simple: Regardless of one’s desire or training to get the externals right, real success in this area is largely determined by the internals. Stated differently, it is difficult for a boss to regularly deliver criticism with care if that boss does not in fact care.
For the Christian manager, then, the challenge begins by examining one’s attitude toward those who under perform or misbehave on the job. Is it primarily an attitude of impatience and frustration, or an attitude of humility and servant-like concern? Does one see the employee as a dry well or as deep water? The internal reality will ultimately govern the external practice.
As usual, we have choices here. God gives us the freedom to select our attitude toward problematic subordinates, to select our words, and to select our correctives. We may not be able to remedy all behavior and performance problems, but we can always approach the feedback process in a God-honoring manner. (195-208)
1. This anecdote compiled from the following sources: Eric Malni, “City Worker Held After 4 Supervisors Are Slain,” Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1995, Al; Paul Feldman, “Shootings Spark Calls for Better Security Measures,” Los Angeles Times, 21 July 1995, Bl; Stephanie Simon and Paul Feldman, “Search Goes On for Answers to Violence in the Workplace,” Los Angeles Times, 30 July 1995, BI; Patrick McGreevy, “Suspect Kept Gun at Work, Records Show,” Los Angeles Daily News, 10 August 1995, 4; Janet Gilmore, “Ex-City Worker Handed Life Term,” Los Angeles Daily News, 8 February 1997,4.
2. “Study: Evaluations Spurring Worker Aggression,” The Houston Chronicle, 10 April 1996, 4.
3. For a detailed listing of these approximately two dozen incidents, see Stephen Goods, “Cases of Workplace Attacks This Decade,” The Hartford [Connecticut] Courant, 7 March 1998, A7.
4. For a representative sampling of this literature, see: Daniel R. Ilgen and Carol F. Moore, “Types and Choices of Performance Feedback,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, no.3(1987): 401—406; Kathryn Tyler, “Careful Criticism Brings Better Performance,” HR Magazine, 42, no.4 (April 1997): 57—61; Jeffrey A. Mello, “The Fine Art of Reprimand: Using Criticism to Enhance Commitment, Motivation and Performance,” Employee Relations Today, 22, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 19—28.
5. More information on speaking from the “I” perspective is available in Roger Fisher and William thy, Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In, 2nd ed. (New York: Viking. 1991).
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