How do you tell someone when their work needs improvement? We’ve all been there… one of our co-workers or bosses (or children) brings us something for review and it’s just not good. Ideally the person knows they need help and readily accepts your critique. What happens when the person really believes it’s up to snuff, but it really requires a trip back to the drawing board?
Your level of diplomacy should depend on the situation, but I generally follow three rules for giving guidance:
1) Ask if they want your help. My friend Stephen Richardson phrases it this way, “Do you want to make this even better?” If someone says no, then you’re wasting your time. If they’re open to improvement, move on to rule 2.
2) Critique the work, not the person. Coming right out with “Wow, you really suck!” (I actually heard that once in my life) is different than “I think this work is not up to your usual high standards.”
3) Align the work with a goal. If something is off the mark, it may be that there is no mark… no goal or clear purpose for the audience. This is the secret to good guidance. Ask them “What are you trying to accomplish with this?” After listening carefully to the answer, follow with “Well, if you want to do that, I suggest trying a different approach like (insert suggestion here).”
I had an interesting experience the last time I served on a jury. An otherwise open-and-shut case was almost lost because the prosecuting attorney’s performance was just awful. The defense attorney’s presentation was polished, competent and compelling. The prosecutor bumbled through her presentation, mixed up facts, leaned uncomfortably on the lectern and did not once make eye contact with any of us in the jury box. She was lucky to get a guilty verdict from us.
The judge invited us to talk with the prosecution and defense in the hallway after the trial if we wanted to. I was in a hurry to get home and almost walked on by, but decided to reach out to the young prosecutor. I asked if she wanted to hear my opinion on the proceedings and how she could improve her presentation skills for next time.
She almost broke down in tears with gratitude. “This is only my second trial and I would LOVE to get some feedback. They teach us a lot in law school, but nearly nothing on presentation skills!”
After explaining how I, as a juror, felt when she exhibited the distracting behaviors, her eyes lit up with understanding. I never said that SHE was awkward. I pointed out her occasionally awkward verbiage and body language and the effect it had on my receptiveness.
I ended with alignment to a goal. “If you really want to bring your facts to life for a jury, I suggest you videotape yourself and ask for colleagues to evaluate you outside the courtroom. Eye contact is probably your #1 key to credibility, and could really make a difference the next time you have a case that could go either way.”
When you follow the three rules of coaching, you’ve got them listening, you’re focused on the work (not the person) and you’re working together toward a goal that matters. And that… does not suck.