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Managing a Growing Startup? 4 Ways to Keep Your Criticism Constructive

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Want to know the most common complaint from employees about management? Inadequate communication.

It’s an old gripe, as evidenced by the large percentage of Dilbert cartoons on the subject over the years. Yet, it’s an ongoing issue at many of today’s companies. Some managers micromanage, while others steer employees wrong.

At a tight-knit startup, this just won't do. When you're dealing with people with a variety of skills -- possibly some that you might not fully understand -- your ability to constructively critique their work will be vital.

Here are four startup-management tricks of the trade:

1. Language is key. This isn't an opportunity to air your personal concerns with an employee. Instead, highlight a specific issue that you’d like to be improved upon. Your worst enemy is defensiveness. To avoid triggering this booby-trap, stay away from critiques that sound like attacks, as doing so will naturally make a person less receptive to outside opinions. Take a conspiratorial tone. People tune out if you point out their flaws, but their interest will be piqued if you ask them how they think something they’ve done could best be improved upon. Discuss your opinion with them and let them collaborate with you on the best possible fix.

Related: Become a Master Delegator in 7 Simple Steps

2. Acknowledge when you don’t understand. If admitting that you don’t fully understand how an employee will implement a necessary change sounds like a bad idea, try it. People know when you don’t understand their skill-set, even if they’d never admit it. By taking the first step toward neutral ground, you’re free to discuss why a change is necessary as a layman. Have the employee walk you step-by-step through what would have to happen to implement your suggested change, you’ll learn more about their process and your employee will learn that you care about their talent.

3. Develop criteria through critique. Finding something broken and telling someone to “Fix it!” is the worst possible way to actually fix anything. Employees base their personal performance on pre-established criteria founded on feedback from their peers and boss. When you sit someone down for a heart to heart, they should leave with a clear sense of what to do differently to avoid any future issues. Fixing a problem is one thing, but understanding the steps necessary to avoid a similar problem can be much more valuable.

Related: 3 Steps for Developing a Startup Dream Team

4. Remember your attaboys. If there’s one mistake I see in how managers communicate with their employees, it’s in their ability to acknowledge a job well done. Chances are, you’ll be asking for -- and receiving -- necessary parts of your project on the fly. It’s important to acknowledge not only that you received the information you requested, but to thank the sender for the timing and quality of the work. The worst light an employee can view you in is the one-way input, and the tiniest bit of daily feedback can be an incredible low-key morale booster.

Communication is a two-way street. Being open to the feedback of your employees starts with being able to express your own opinions in a reasoned, encouraging manner. Always remember to focus on the finish line when critiquing a project, and remind your employees that their contributions are what will make it great.

Related: Unlocking the Power of Accountability With Your Employees

What, in your opinion, is the most important advice that a first-time manager should master? Leave me a comment below. 

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