LENS Business, Law, and Policy

Positively Negative

You Really Can Offer Friendly Criticism in the Workplace

Giving negative comments to co-workers and employees about their performance can be a tricky business. Still, knowing how to be critical in a positive way is an indispensable business management skill. "A lot of being a good [team] player or leader has to do with how you present yourself when the going gets tough," said John Paul Stephens, PhD, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Case Western Reserve Weatherhead School of Management.

Stephens co-authored a book chapter with Avi Carmeli, PhD, professor of strategy and management at Tel Aviv University, about respectful engagement in the workplace that was published this year in the Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity. The two also published a study last year in the International Journal of Project Management examining negative emotions in the workplace.

They described how results and creativity improve when leaders show respect and caring for employees. They also found that project teams whose members constructively express negative emotions not only work better together, but also enhance their ability to think together. And they're even more likely to stay on budget.

What's the key to being positively negative? "Start off by reminding the other person that this is about the team and then share [your concerns]," Stephens said. "But always come back to the whole, so that the other person knows you're in it together."

He also recommends seeking constructive criticism from supervisors and colleagues about your own work. "Have a trusted network of people who can give you feedback on the stu you may not want to hear," he said.

Stephens tells students that employers aren't just looking for technical competencies.

"A lot of what I teach is yes, get your [business-related certifications] … and go be amazing," he said. "But guess what? Everyone else in line for that job has those same certifications. If you can manage relationships and show that in an interview, then you'll be more attractive to companies."

—Jennifer Kuhel