Effective Criticism

project risk management

An important part of a project manager’s job is setting norms of behavior and conduct. These help the team work together effectively and efficiently. You, as the project manager, must set and enforce these standards. You have to reinforce positive behavior and change bad behavior.  Part of behavior change comes from setting standards for the group, and you have to do that in public.

Effective criticism is most effective early in the life of a team. During the “forming” and “norming” phases of team development, team members are most sensitive to your efforts. Later on, it is much harder for you to change or stop undesirable behavior.Effective Criticism  You must avoid punishing people with your criticism. Punishment doesn’t change how people behave and can produce negative results.

Let’s look at the right and wrong way to handle several situations with effective criticism.

Effective Criticism Situation: Team Member Arrives Late For a Meeting

You had e-mailed the project team the agenda for a 30 minute planning meeting.  The group assembled several minutes early, except for one team member.  There was informal and light–hearted conversation since most of the team members knew each other.  Then you started the meeting at the appointed time.  After 15 minutes, the missing team member arrived and made a couple of humorous comments as he took his seat.

How should you use effective criticism to handle this situation?  First, you need to recognize there are two parts to the behavior change you want to make.  The most important is to set the standard for timeliness. It may sound silly that you need to tell professionals to be on time for meetings.  However, being late for meetings might be OK on some teams. You must make your expectation and standard clear because it may differ from the norms they have on other teams.

Ineffective Standard-setting Response:

“By being late you have wasted all of our time and that is really unprofessional and sloppy. If you do that again, you and I are going to have trouble.”

You are trying to punish the late arrival and this threat is an overreaction.  It only makes you look silly. There is a better way to define what you expect from the team members.

Effective Criticism and Standard-setting Response:

“When people are late for meetings I have two bad choices.  I can interrupt the meeting to let them catch up. But this wastes everyone else’s time. Or I can let the late arrival figure things out as we move on.  Those are both bad choices. So please, let’s all be on time for meetings.”

The next part is to criticize the late team member with the goal of changing his behavior, not punishing him. So you should talk to him in private to offer effective criticism. Two approaches to that next conversation with the late team member are below.

Ineffective Criticism Response:

“I always find that people who are late also do sloppy work and are very unprofessional.”

Stating stereotypes of people who are late as being sloppy and unprofessional is insulting. It may actually get in the way of changing the person’s behavior. You need to focus only on the behavior you want.

Effective Criticism Response:

We are all too busy to have our time wasted by someone who is late.  Please help me set the standard that everyone arrives on time.  Thanks.”

There is no personal criticism or implication that the person who arrived late is a bad person.  This is a clear comparison of the behavior you want compared to what you got.  The request for their help is a nice touch to make the criticism more effective.

Effective Criticism Situation: Functional Turf  Wars

As you continued to work with the team, you noticed sharp remarks exchanged between the team members from Marketing and Operations. The barbs seemed to focus on a previous, failed project.  Each side was implying that the other was to blame for the failure.  You quickly decided that you had to do two things. First, you had to define the the norm and the kind of behavior you want from the team.  Second, you needed to effectively criticize the barbs being made by each side to make clear how their behavior deviated from what you wanted.

Ineffective Norm Definition:

“I don’t want to hear any more of these inter-departmental turf wars.  It’s stupid and completely unprofessional.”

That statement is publicly criticizing certain people on a personal level. It produces resentment, not better behavior.

Effective Criticism Norm Definition:

“Let’s focus on the future and the brilliant things we will deliver as a team, not on failed projects from the past.”

Next you need to speak to the people privately about how their comments differed from the behavior you want.

Ineffective Criticism:

“You can hate the people from (pick a department name) on your own time. On my project, you have to work with them. So get used to cooperating with each other.”

Effective Criticism:

“Everyone will have a separate, measured accountability on this project. And we will know if anyone is not pulling their weight or trying to shift work on to other departments.  So let’s not re-fight old wars. Let’s focus on making this project a success.”

Effective Criticism Situation: Not Meeting Assignment Requirements

You can’t wait for delivery of a bad assignment to define your expectations. You do it upfront during the initial project planning phase. You use effective criticism to change bad behavior right away.

Ineffective Standard-setting:

“Top management is watching this project very closely and they will know very quickly if someone is not doing a good job on their assignments.  So don’t let bad work on this project ruin your career.”

This is the perfect way to have people start working on their excuses for avoiding blame before they even start work.  There is a better way to define your expectations.

Effective Criticism Standard-setting:

“The most important part of my job as project manager is to make sure you understand everything that is expected of you. That’s why we are developing work packages that define everything you have to do to succeed.  Work packages describe the deliverable with a metric and the standards you have to meet. They also list all the documentation that you have to produce. If you produce what’s in the work package, your assignment will be a success.  If people in the organization want something that is missing from the work package, that is my fault. It’s not yours.”

As you execute the plan, there may be assignments that fall short of the expectation defined in the work package. Here are the wrong and right ways to handle that situation.

Ineffective Criticism Work Expectation:

“You have not given me what I asked for because you didn’t listen.  This is all wrong due to your poor work.”

This is too vague and does not tell the team member what they did wrong.  It also heaps a lot of personal accusations on them. This will not change their behavior for the better.

Effective Criticism Work Expectation:

“I guess the work package I wrote was not clear.  I would like you to complete the deliverable with this new, better defined work package.”

Taking some of the blame, whether deserved or not, will make the criticism more acceptable for the team member. And with the focus on the future, it may improve their attention to detail going forward.

Effective Criticism Summary

Handling situations that involve good news, like finishing early and under budget, are easy to handle. But it’s challenging to handle the situations that involve effectively managing the project that is late and over budget due to a team member’s poor performance. You need to focus on changing their behavior, not punishing them. You do this with effective criticism delivered in private. It’s easy to lose sight of how your own behavior and emotions can get in the way of building a high-performing project team.  To master effective criticism skills, you need to practice handling these situations the right way.

Contact us about enrolling in our private, online Project Management Basics course to learn these skills. You work with an expert PM and you can have as many e-mails, phone calls and live video conferences with them as you need.

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