Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Critique by job, compliment by person

Apr 03, 2017 04:25PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Jarrod Haning

Have you ever needed to deliver some correction to a team member, but been frustrated at their seeming inability to hear it? This can drain the momentum of any team.  

Our default wiring as humans is to attach more meaning to what we do than who we are. Consequentially, any negative comment about job performance is going to be met with resistance. In their mind you aren’t just criticizing their job, you are also criticizing their worth. Allow me to illustrate how this plays out in a symphony orchestra rehearsal.

Sometimes, no correction is needed at all.  

When a musician makes a mistake, a good conductor will first give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they are competent musicians or they wouldn’t be in the group to start with. They know they messed up, and everyone else knows they messed up, so there’s no need to draw attention to it. A good conductor knows the difference between something that needs time to self-correct and something that needs attention to be corrected. If the mistake was one of skill, like a difficult passage, there is no sense in drawing attention to it; the player just needs time to become more familiar with the passage. Because it is an error in skill, it can’t be instantly corrected.  

Too many well-intentioned managers are disrupting the workflow by drawing attention to the wrong mistakes. This undermines the employee’s confidence and sense of contribution. They are effectively being told “You are probably too incompetent to realize that you screwed up here, so let me display my firm grasp on the obvious by pointing it out.”

Where possible, give the benefit of the doubt. If you thought they were competent enough to hire, then trust them to know when they made a mistake. Giving the benefit of the doubt will increase teamwork by encouraging them to take more responsibility, not less. After all, why should they be proactive when they have a manager to do it for them?

In rehearsal, there are times when the musician is not aware of how their actions relate to the whole. This is a case where the conductor needs address the mistake, but they do so by instrument and not by player. A good conductor will say something like: “Second trumpet, that was too slow, a bit faster next time.” Keep in mind, this is a critique in front of 80 peers. Also, notice the statement ends with a clear description of what the conductor wants to see next time.

Even if the conductor and second trumpet player are on a first name basis, in rehearsal, a good conductor will still refer to the error by instrument and not by player. A bad conductor will say something like “Tony, you are too slow.” This creates unnecessary processing on Tony’s part and disrupts the flow of teamwork. Bringing “Tony” into it now makes it personal. Furthermore, the words “you are too slow” reinforces that this is a critique about the person and not the desired outcome.  

By correcting mistakes by job role, the conductor is moving the ball down the field and keeping the momentum. Good managers in the business world will do the same thing.  Even if they are only referring to one person they will still say something like: “Accounting, we need the forms collated or everything gets jammed up over here.” A statement like this removes a host of conflicts by subtly reminding everyone that it is not personal. The funny thing is that when it’s not presented as personal, the personnel behind the error take more ownership of the problem. But when things are presented as personal, such as, “Barbara, you keep messing up the forms,” the people behind the breakdown tend to distance themselves from the issue by blaming, deflecting, or denying ownership.

I almost forgot, when a player does something well, a good conductor will publicly reference it, but this time by name: “Tony, that was excellent.”  

Critique by job, compliment by person.

Jarrod Haning is the Principal Violist for the South Carolina Philharmonic and has performed with more than 14 orchestras.  As an award winning speaker he has trained doctors, lawyers, pilots and others on how to increase their performance. He can be reached at [email protected]