One of your tasks as an entrepreneur, especially early in the business, is to give your employees negative feedback. It’s a necessary part of being the boss, and required if you want to tune their performance. The problem is not that your employees are making mistakes, as that will happen — it’s giving them feedback properly and in a manner that keeps their morale as high as possible.

Much of the issue revolves around what you say and what they hear. Clarity is important, both in the manner and tone you give criticism as well as making sure that the employee heard what you need them to hear. If you want to give clearer feedback, you’ll want to avoid these five somewhat vague and misleading statements and phrases.

“…be more like Dave…”
Comparison is a tried and tested way to highlight a point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well when criticizing an employee as an entrepreneur. All he’s bound to hear is that Dave is a better employee than he is, which can create a hostile work environment. It might even make people think you favor Dave, whoever he is, if you refer to him as an ideal employee often enough. It doesn’t matter that he’s doing well – what matters is the comparison.

Instead of comparing them to other people, measure their performance according to measurable metrics. Tell them the numbers they failed to reach, or how their performance fails to live up to the company’s mission, vision, or even values.

“…you’re getting off easy because…”
Telling an employee that things could’ve been worse might seem like a good idea. You’re telling them that they’re lucky, and that their previous performance softens the blow of their mistake. You might even feel like you’re diffusing the tension, depending on the tone you use. Unfortunately, most of the time employees just hear that they would’ve been fired had it been anyone else.

There’s a time to discipline employees and a time to give them constructive feedback, and rarely do the appropriate time overlap for these two interactions. Delivering both at the same time can result in a mixed message at best, and at worst, an aversion to performance reviews because they have the connotation of being coupled with disciplinary action. When you’re delivering criticism, focus on places where the employee can improve and on forming a solid action plan. Leave out any threats or jokes as they’ll distract from your message.

“…but…”
Giving criticism is difficult, and you may try to soften the blow by starting with a complement. It sounds like a good idea – you complement them and give a reminder that they’ve done well in the past. The problem is the word “but.” Once that word comes out, everything before it is forgotten and all they remember is what follows.

There is a point in reminding your employees of their previous achievements, as it’ll give them the confidence to improve. However, that reminder should come after your negative feedback and after the action plan is settled. This’ll make sure that they hear both the criticism and the complement.

“…what do you think?”
Asking the employee what they think they did wrong or how they think they’re doing may seem like a good idea, but it’s also one that can easily backfire. At best it can sound like a trick question and at worst, you won’t get an honest answer. Even the most arrogant employee will hesitate to tell the boss how they’re doing, simply because that’s the last person to whom they want to look like they’re tooting their own horn.

Performance reviews are not about what they think. It’s about numbers and actual events. It’s when you tell them where they’re failing and how they can turn things around. Focus on giving solutions instead of hoping the employee knows what exactly is going on.

Delivering negative feedback properly is one of the most important skills you’ll ever need as an entrepreneur. Even when your start-up has grown, you’ll need to give it to managers and partners. Everyone makes mistakes, and if no one can tell them that and leave them feeling like they can improve, your company will never make. Mistakes will never be corrected and if they are, the employee is left feeling worse instead of inspired to do better.

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