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Delivering CorrectionMalcolm Webber
In addition to communicating positive feedback, leaders also have to share negative things with their constituents at times. When delivering correction or “constructive criticism,” leaders should do the following (some of these ideas have been adapted from Management by Proverbs by Michael A. Zigarelli):
- Pray first. The leader should ask for God’s help and wisdom so that he can speak with the appropriate spirit and with the right words. He also should pray for the person receiving the correction so he can receive it with humility and grace.
Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Prov. 12:18)
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. (Prov. 17:27)
- Do it privately. To publicly criticize someone’s work or behavior is to humiliate them. Sometimes it can even lead to unnecessary lawsuits. Contrary to praise, which should be offered publicly whenever possible, discussions about someone’s deficiencies should remain private (exceptional circumstances are described in 1 Tim. 5:20).
- Do it personally. It is often a mistake to deliver a correction by phone. It is always a mistake to do it via email. On a telephone call, the person still has the benefit of hearing the tone of your voice, even if they can’t see you; but email is absolutely without any non-verbal assistance whatsoever! Face-to-face conversations allow the leader to observe the person’s non-verbal language (which is often far more revealing than what is spoken). This may assist the leader in the sometimes arduous task of identifying root problems. Similarly, a personal discussion permits the person to more clearly observe the leader’s concern both for him and for the whole organization.
- Begin with something positive. Researchers have found that people are more likely to accept negative feedback as accurate if some positive feedback is offered first. It is essential that the person understand that his leader sees not just his deficiencies, but also his contributions to the organization. At the same time, if significant affirmation is due the person, then it’s probably best to deliver it at a separate time. Appending a “but on the other hand…” to an affirmation often has the effect of nullifying its beneficial aspects.
- Get to the point. Most people can sense when their leader has a problem with them. So, when the leader beats around the bush, it is both transparent and frustrating for the person receiving the correction.
- Speak in terms of “I,” not “you.” Speaking in the first person is a good way to minimize defensiveness. A statement like, “I don’t understand your behavior in this situation” is easier to receive than the blunt “You’re doing something wrong.” The first approach communicates essentially the same information, but it runs less risk of creating defensiveness.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov. 15:1)
- Be specific. Generalized or abstract criticisms (e.g., “You’re doing poorly”) do not work as well as more specific feedback. Be clear about what is expected and contrast that with objective facts about what the person has or has not accomplished. The leader must clearly identify this gap between his expectations and the person’s current performance, thus bringing into sharp focus the problem that must be addressed. This will become the basis for a more constructive discussion of how to bridge that gap.
- Stick to the facts. Be objective and avoid speculative judgments about the causes of misbehavior or under-performance. Instead ask the person about the reasons for their behavior or performance and then actively listen to their response.
- Don’t twist the knife. In any one discussion, there is no need to repeat criticisms. The person will usually get the idea. Furthermore, if possible, only deal with one problem per conversation and avoid resurrecting old problems that were previously resolved. People tend to perceive such bringing up of the past as unnecessary and unfair.
- Jointly craft a solution. After presenting the negative feedback, involve the person in solving the problem. Someone who has helped craft a solution is usually more committed to it than one who has a solution forced upon him. Pinpoint the problem and set up some mutually agreeable goals as a standard against which to evaluate future performance. Also, if appropriate, jointly design a development plan to train the person in his areas of need.
- Follow up. After the plan for improvement has been made and agreed upon, the leader must hold the person accountable for his future actions. If there is no lasting change, more drastic measures may be necessary.
- Offer feedback continuously. Feedback should be given more than once or twice a year. Ideally, when a leader sees a person doing something wrong (or right), he should let him know about it immediately to correct (or reinforce) the behavior.