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The (In)effectiveness of Criticism as a Motivator

We have a manager who feels that “motivation” should be in the form of criticism – to encourage the employee to “work harder.”  If indeed this is his style, what is the best approach to giving constructive criticism to employees as a motivator? 

—Providing Constructive Feedback

October 2, 2013
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Dear Providing Constructive Feedback:

To begin to answer your question, we first need to ask why we need motivated employees? Will it really make a difference in our organization? Most will respond, of course it will, and I agree. Motivated employees help organizations survive. Motivated employees are more productive than non-motivated employees and they area a critical component in our rapidly and ever changing workplaces.   

Motivating employees looks different for every person and every manager. You are likely struggling with the manager in your organization who feels that criticism is a great way to motivate employees because your style and approach is different and you haven’t seen a benefit in his approach. How we interact with our employees can be the difference in them being engaged, wanting to give the extra effort and frankly, wanting to stay with the organization.  

To be effective, leaders need to understand what motivates his/her employees within the roles they perform. Of all the functions a leader performs, motivating employees is one of the most challenging, but it can also have the biggest return. Leaders have a profound influence on their employees and their organization’s success. Employees seek guidance, coaching, support and feedback from their leaders and when it is positive, they are more likely to deliver the results leaders want to see. 

One of the first things that we need to do as leaders is get to know our employees. As we build those relationships, we gain an understanding of how best to provide feedback, positive as well as constructive. The employee sees that we care about them as people as well as guiding them in their development and career growth.  

In your scenario, your manager believes that criticism is a good way to get employees to work harder. Criticism is often considered an "art," because it involves human insight into "what one can say and cannot say" in the given situation. 

Unfortunately, criticism can actually silence people, or cause them to stay away. It can leave employees feeling that they only hear about how they’re doing when they make a mistake. An employee’s self-confidence also plays a big role in dealing with criticism - the confidence to criticize, and the confidence to face criticism. If people's emotions are not taken into consideration, criticism can be harmful, although it may be well-intentioned, or perfectly sensible.

As I read your question, it caused me to reflect on my history as a manager. I often found that my employees actually worked harder and gave more of their efforts when they were praised, supported and encouraged. And, when I did need to have to do some additional “motivating,” feedback instead of criticism always worked better.  

SOURCE:  Margaret Walker, Principal at FutureSense, Inc. , a management consulting firm, Costa Mesa, California

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 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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