A friend once told me his coach said, “I yell at you because I know you have potential. When I stop yelling at you, start worrying.” While that type of coaching might work for some, it never resonated with me -- nor the athletes I’ve coached.
Prior to starting CoachUp, I was a private coach and before that a professional basketball player. I credit the way I approach coaching and criticizing -- on the basketball court and in the office -- to my time learning and observing both good and bad leaders. Think about the last time you really listened to someone -- at work, at home or on a sports team. Was it because they were yelling at you? Or was it because they sat you down and had a genuine conversation with you? Chances are it was the latter.
The core difference between great coaches and mediocre ones is the way they motivate their teams and critique their players.
You can usually hear the difference between good and bad coaches. We’ve all seen the coach that meets the player who made a mistake on the sideline with an ear-full of expletives. What you don’t hear this type of coach say is they’re yelling because they see their player’s error as a reflection of their own abilities. What you won’t hear from the athlete is that the coach’s yelling makes them feel even worse because they are already upset for letting the team down.
On the other hand are the coaches you’ll rarely hear yell publicly. What you won’t hear these coaches say is that they know every mistake is a learning experience and if handled properly can actually help their team in the future. This type of coach meets the player at the sideline or takes them aside in the locker room -- and instead of tearing down the athlete’s confidence, they build it up.
These leaders understand that a coach can be one of the most influential people in an athlete’s life. Athletes want to make their coaches proud while improving at the game they love. When a coach communicates poorly, they put up a barrier.
Coaches and managers dread giving team members potentially de-motivating feedback. Both coach and athlete or manager and employee can feel hurt, angry or stressed about the situation. The nature in which we give feedback is often fundamentally wrong. These conversations shouldn’t be filled with fear that a direct report will lose motivation or the drive to improve. They should be approached as an empowering dialogue between the manager and employee about how to improve the team’s performance collectively.
Related: 10 Habits of Ultra-Likable Leaders
Coaches who turn negative feedback into open, positive dialogue use a certain technique to talk to their athletes. Here are three steps these leaders follow to deliver effective criticism that you can use in the workplace:
Coaches can tell when their athletes are upset. A friendly arm around the back and a joke can change the mood and shift an athlete’s focus. It doesn’t help to start a conversation on a hostile note. People can only truly listen and focus when they feel comfortable and at ease. At the start of a performance discussion, keep things light -- ask about your employee’s weekend or their hobbies outside of work. Focus on building a genuine relationship based on trust.
Good coaches don’t let an error overshadow what the player has done right all game. They complement the athlete on something they did well that half or an aspect of their game that they are improving. This shows the athlete that the coach isn’t just looking at them when they mess up, but that they recognize and appreciate the athlete’s strengths as well. The same is true in the workplace. Support your teammate and let them know where they have been excelling. The rule of thumb is five positive comments for every negative one. Interestingly, research on relationships both in and out of the business world has found that a similar ratio works for delivering criticism. Psychologist John Gottman analyzed married couples and found the single biggest determinant of divorce is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. The happiest couples demonstrated a ratio of about five positive comments for every negative one they delivered.
Once a coach has set a positive tone, it is easier to have an open dialogue. But they don’t abuse this opportunity -- good coaches take this final moment to share one specific piece of feedback. This final, precise delivery of criticism allows the athlete to take in the feedback with a positive and motivated attitude. Further, it enables them to focus on the one area they most need to improve, rather than being bogged down or frustrated by a seemingly endless list of things to fix. When delivering criticism in the office, try and focus on one key area where your team or direct report needs to adjust. If you take the time to really consider the problem, chances are you can identify one habit or behavior that is the root of several issues. Be thoughtful enough to identify this core problem and focus on addressing that rather than providing a host of complaints.
So the next time you have to deliver criticism, take a lesson from the best coaches and use the three plays above to ensure your message has a positive, winning impact.