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How to provide constructive criticism

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Don’t use email to give criticism

This is a guest post by Sarah Clare.

As a project manager, there is sure to come a time when you have to address poor performance or substandard work. We all make mistakes, and we can all find ways to improve our work. When you are a project manager, it is your responsibility to make sure that you help your team to learn from those mistakes and to find ways to improve the quality of their work.

However, delivering constructive criticism can be difficult. You may not know how to distinguish it from plain criticism, or you may not know how to deliver it in a way that your team members do not receive negatively. Learning how to give criticism to inspire positive change is a skill that must be learned.

Here are a few tips for how you can better provide constructive criticism to your team:

Deliver it in person

E-mail might be the best way to communicate with busy professionals, but it’s not always the best way to communicate sensitive information. There is no tone in e-mail, and something that you intend to say with empathy and understanding may be read flat or even with malicious intent. It is important to have these conversations in person so that your tone of voice and body language can help to soften the message and to inspire a sense of team work to accomplish a mutual goal.

Focus on discrete, actionable changes

Criticism can very easily turn into a personal attack or a rambling rant that encompasses everything that you’re unhappy about with the employee. It is important to be very deliberate by thinking about what you intend to say before you approach the employee and to have a goal in mind for improvement. You can then focus on small, actionable changes that the employee can make to solve the problem, rather than providing vague feedback asking for improvement with no ideas about how to make it happen.

Focus on one or two actions at a time so that you do not overwhelm the employee. Once those are made, if additional changes are still needed, you can revisit the conversation to evaluate progress and to suggest continued improvement.

Be liberal with praise

Criticism is always hard to hear, no matter how well you deliver it. You can make it a little easier to bear by being liberal with your praise as well. Don’t wait until you have something negative to say to offer praise. Make it a habit to praise your team members when you see them doing something great or when they deliver good work. When you have to provide constructive criticism, you can build on that praise by highlighting recent accomplishments or aspects of the project that have been handled particularly well.

Encourage problem solving

You can engage the employee in figuring out how to solve the problem together in order to promote learning and real improvement. If you tell the employee what you would like to see change, it may not always be effective. You may only train the employee to do what you are asking in order to avoid repercussions – but the employee may not understand why the change is necessary or valuable and, therefore, won’t change the underlying behavior that caused the problem in the first place.

Instead, encourage problem solving together. Instead of providing a solution, talk with the employee about the problem and ask for feedback about what can be done to improve the situation. The process will encourage learning that will facilitate long-term change.

Provide a model

If you lecture an employee about being tardy but then don’t roll into the office until 10am every day, you aren’t going to be very effective in inspiring change. It is important to provide a positive role model for the kind of behavior that you want to see.

In addition to providing your own role model, you can support employees in making positive changes by providing mentorship opportunities, support, or ongoing training.

It’s never easy to hear criticism, and it can be even harder to try to give it in a constructive way. Developing thoughtful strategies for delivering criticism can help ensure that your message is heard so that you and your team can work together to create positive change. These strategies can help you accomplish those goals.

How do you handle giving constructive criticism to your team? Share your tips for success in the comments!

About the Author: Sarah Clare is a writer and oversees the site projectmanagementsoftware.com, where she has recently been researching time tracking software. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys cooking and scrapbooking.


Win a copy of Leading and Coaching Teams to Success

Leading and Coaching Teams To SuccessTime for another giveaway.

This time, it’s a copy of Leading and Coaching Teams to Success: The Secret Life of Teams by Phil Hayes. It’s about what happens to teams behind closed doors, and you can read my review of it here. As I say in the review, the book talks about how teams gossip, go off the rails and implode. There’s something cathartic about reading about teams in a worse state than that of your own.

I interviewed Phil earlier this year and he convinced me that team coaching helps groups move from being great performers to excellent performers, so it’s not all about remedial action.

Want your chance to get the book? Click here to contact me with the phrase “My team has a secret life” and I’ll put your name in the hat.

The giveaway closes on Friday 17 August 2012. This copy of the book is an advance reader’s copy so it has a slightly different cover to the copies you’ll find in the shops.

Normal terms and conditions apply: read them here if you are new to my giveaways.

If you don’t want to take your chances with the giveaway, and want your own copy now, you can buy it on Amazon.co.uk or on Amazon.com.


Earlier this year I reviewed The Project Management Coaching Workbook by Susanne Madsen (Management Concepts, 2011). You can read that review here and an interview with Susanne about the power of questions here.

I’m delighted to have a copy to give away. This is a unique and practical book aimed at project managers who want to perfect their craft and those in the role of coach to project managers. There are plenty of checklists and exercises to assess yourself and improve your skills. Alternatively, if you work with others in a coaching role, you can use this workbook to form the basis of your coaching interventions.

The book covers 6 self-coaching steps:

  1. Create your vision
  2. Benchmark current skills
  3. Get feedback
  4. Create an action plan
  5. Review guiding practices
  6. Review progress

Sound good? Click here to contact me with the phrase “I want to unleash my potential” and I’ll put your name in the hat.

The giveaway closes on Sunday 24 June 2012.

Normal terms and conditions apply: read them here if you are new to my giveaways.

If you don’t want to take your chances with the giveaway, and want your own copy now, you can buy it on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.


Focus on Coaching: Interview with Kevin Ciccotti

Kevin Ciccotti

Kevin Ciccotti

In the last part of the Focus on Coaching series, I’m interviewing Kevin Ciccotti, CPCC, ACC. Kevin is a coach who has chosen to work specifically with PMPs (although I expect he’d work with any project managers). I asked him why.

Kevin, how did you get into coaching?

I will say my path to coaching was not exactly a straight line. I spent many  years working in different organizations, from hotel-casinos (I grew up and still live in Reno, Nevada), to airlines, and a few others before ‘settling in’ and working for more than 25 years for a world-class manufacturing company that happened to be the world’s largest slot machine manufacturer. The last 16 of those years were spent in management, and that is where I really began to develop my ability to help my team members build upon their strengths, overcome challenges, and create successful careers.

One of my employees told me, “You’re wasting your talents here. Not that what you do for us isn’t appreciated, but you have so much to offer beyond these walls. You need to think about how you can reach more people and help them the way you’ve helped us.” Well, those words both inspired and terrified me. The truth was that I knew I wasn’t playing to my own strengths. So I researched coach training programs, and attended one of the best in the country.

It’s been more than four years now since I left my corporate job and started my coaching business and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. I haven’t looked back once, or regretted a second. That, for me, is the ultimate definition of success.

Why did you choose to work with project managers?

In my previous job, I was heavily involved in product development – from product concept, to planning and development, to production, and ultimately end of life cycle, or obsolescence. One thing that was a constant was that no matter how well team members knew each other, regardless of skill sets, we struggled to get traction on new projects. For me, it was a fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, study of how complex relationships in the workplace can be. We’re all on the same team, right? Then why is there so much conflict, so little cooperation?

When I became a coach, I honestly thought I’d left all that behind. Then, I began coaching the CEO of a technology company that specializes in ERP implementations and PPM/BPM processes for large corporations. After working with me for a while, he mentioned that what I do as a coach could greatly benefit project managers who struggle with leading teams – especially when they have no direct authority over members.

That sparked something in me, and I investigated further. Over the last four years, we’ve seen an incredible shift in the workplace, and all of us are faced with unprecedented challenges. Companies have dramatically cut staff and asked people to do more with less, and PM’s are under more pressure than ever to get their teams engaged and working together effectively. I’ve since joined PMI, have spoken at multiple events, written articles for a number of publications, hosted webinars, and created a one-day workshop called The Human Factor in Project Management, and I absolutely love working with PM’s!

Well, we are lovely people. One of the things you’ve said is that some of our behaviour is down to brain wiring. Does that mean that there are some behaviours that we cannot change?

While it’s true that many of our behaviours are influenced by the way our brains are wired, that by no means implies that we are automatons who are simply running on programs. Ultimately, we always have the power of choice in any situation.

For example, think of a time when you faced a major change or uncertainty in your work or life. If you’re like the vast majority of people, your initial response was probably one of resistance or fear. That’s because the brain is literally wired to see change as potential threat, it craves certainty.  Anything new and unusual triggers us to make a ‘toward or away from’ decision, based on moving toward a perceived pleasure or reward, or away from potential pain.

The most important thing to be aware of in those times is that you get to decide what the change means. Of course, we all know that not all change is inherently bad, nor is it always good. Our ability to discern the events, study our choices, and then make a conscious decision about how to proceed, gives us the power to make more effective decisions. So, regardless of the situation, we are not slaves to our brain’s default settings.

Hmm, interesting. How does understanding human behaviour help project managers coach their team members?

It’s really all about increasing awareness. We all tend to view and interpret the world around us through the lens of our own experiences. And, what’s ‘true’ for me is not necessarily true for you or anyone else. Without that understanding, we tend to judge others who don’t share our perspectives as ‘different’ or even ‘wrong.’

When Project Managers learn to see the individuality in team members, they’re much less likely to judge them or their behaviours, and they are far more likely to develop a better sense of connection with them. In the end, my belief is that the single most important aspect of leading teams is your relationship with the people on that team. Understanding human behaviour is a gateway to understanding the people around us. Now, I’m not talking about turning PM’s into psychologists, but having a basic
understanding of behaviour is essential to learning not only how others view their world, but also how you view and interpret your world.

What’s your top tip for project managers who want to start better understanding the way that their project team members work?

Wow, it’s so difficult to come up with just one. I’d have to say that if there were only one thing PM’s could do it would be to really work to become a better listener. And when I say that, I mean don’t just hear what’s being said, but really listen for understanding. So many times, we get caught up in the busyness of our day and our projects, and we don’t give our people the attention they may need. When team members don’t feel heard, it can dramatically impact their level of engagement. When we take the time to listen, even if no action results from it, the person feels heard. And it’s a big difference maker.

For the project manager, this can translate into stronger connections with team members, a deeper level of trust, and more effective communication. All of this can absolutely work to the PM’s advantage when it comes to getting the most from their project teams.

Thanks, Kevin!

Kevin Ciccotti has been a student of peak performance, interpersonal communication, and human behavior for more than 25 years. He was trained at The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), the world’s largest in-person coach training organization. He is certified by both CTI and the International Coach Federation, and in 2012 was named President of the Nevada Professional Coaches Association.


This short series is looking at coaching in a project management environment. Today, I’m reviewing The Project Management Coaching Workbook by Susanne Madsen (Management Concepts, 2011).

“It is not your ability to manage tasks and resources that will set you apart,” writes Susanne Madsen in her new book, The Project Management Coaching Workbook. “It is your ability to manage relationships and lead the team to success through your vision and engagement. As much as knowledge matters, it is your drive, confidence, and attitude that will really help you get your projects over the finishing line.”

Madsen has written a unique and practical book aimed at project managers who want to perfect their craft and those in the role of coach to project managers. You can use the checklists and exercises to assess yourself and improve your skills. If you work with others in a coaching role, this workbook could form the basis of your coaching interventions.

6 Steps for self-coaching

Madsen outlines six steps for you to work through as part of a self-coaching exercise:

  1. Create your vision
  2. Benchmark current skills
  3. Get feedback
  4. Create an action plan
  5. Review guiding practices
  6. Review progress

The book aims to guide you through these six steps so that you can be your own coach, identifying where you are not as proficient and helping you work on these areas.  A large part of this is establishing where you are starting from, which requires both self-assessment and feedback from your colleagues.

Using feedback for improving skills

It is very much a workbook and there are spider diagrams to fill in about each project management dimension, including time management, quality management and stakeholder management, amongst others. This first exercise will give you a personal rating against 80 project management skill areas, so you can quickly see where your strong and weak points are.

You then repeat the exercise with customers, your manager and team members, so you have a complete picture of perceptions of your performance, all of which can be recorded in the workbook, although you will probably want to photocopy the pages so you can get feedback from multiple people. At this point you can identify where you want to dedicate time for improvement. Or, if you are using Madsen’s book as the basis for coaching one of your project team, you can use this assessment to discuss with them their potential areas for improvement.

Keep going for success

Madsen writes:

“One of the differences between ordinary and successful people is that successful people do not give up when presented with an obstacle or challenge. They pick themselves up, get to the root cause of the issue, and change their approach accordingly. Successful people come across as many roadblocks as everyone else, but instead of giving in and blaming others, they change their approach and do something about the situation. They are proactive and keep trying new ways.”

She suggests forming a support group of project managers to act as a day-to-day sounding board. This could be useful, especially if you do’t have a formal coach or mentor and are using her book to develop yourself. If you don’t have a real-life network in your company, you could join external groups like the APM or the project management organisation in your area. You could also tap in to networks online like LinkedIn groups and Gantthead.

As well as providing the framework and forms for a coaching assessment, Madsen also included hints and tips to help you improve in certain areas. I particularly enjoyed the advice about making sure that you know what red, amber green actually mean, so that your reports are meaningful.

Although I am biased towards books that use the Oxford comma, overall I thought this was a structured, useful book. I would like to see the worksheet pages available as a digital download as once you have written in the boxes and completed the spider diagrams you will find it difficult to use again when you come to reassess you skills in a year or so. In the absence of that, make sure you take a photocopy of the workbook pages before you write on them, so if you want to review your progress and reassess yourself, you can.

That continual reassessment is important. “Keep looking inward, reassess what you really, really want to achieve as a project manager and do’t let anything deter you from reaching your goals,” she writes. “Be the best you can in everything that you do, and you will set a great example for others to follow.”

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Susanne Madsen

This short series is looking at coaching in a project management environment. Today I’m interviewing Susanne Madsen, author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and herself a coach.

Hello Susanne. Tell me, what made you go into coaching in the first place?

I started coaching and mentoring project managers because I wanted to make a difference. I had a desire to contribute and to help others overcome some of the challenges I had experienced myself. I had seen the positive effects of coaching in other walks of life and was keen to use it in project management. But although I expected it to have an impact, I didn’t know that it would be quite as powerful as it proved to be. I didn’t know that only a few coaching sessions could be enough to give people the tools and support they needed to excel and make rapid progress as project managers and leaders. Coaching is just such a phenomenal and empowering tool.

That’s a significant claim. Tell me a bit more about the power of coaching.

Coaching is tremendously powerful for people who are willing to work on themselves and take action to achieve a certain goal or outcome. This ‘outcome’ can be anything from finding one’s true purpose, gaining more self confidence, or becoming a better project manager and leader. The power of coaching is that it helps people identify and articulate what their challenges, goals and aspirations are and subsequently assists them in achieving these goals – or avoiding certain challenges. This often creates aha-moments for the coachee and unleashes energy and potential as the individual starts to feel empowered and in control of where they want to go. The coach is the facilitator and the sounding board – and ensures that the right questions are being asked. As John Demartini says, “The quality of your life depends on the quality of the questions you ask!”

Coaching seems to revolve around asking questions. Why is asking quality questions so important?

In coaching we don’t spend hours analysing why things are they way they are. We acknowledge the current situation and then ask how the person can move just one step forward. Some of the most powerful questions you can ask is: What could make my life more fulfilling right now? What am I tolerating or putting up with at the moment? What is my hidden potential? In which ways can I start to contribute and be a role model to others?

OK, so here’s another question for you! What prompted you to write a book about coaching?

When you publish a book you are able to reach a wider range of people and contribute to their personal and professional development. I am passionate about coaching and empowering project managers – what better way than writing and publishing a book? I want the project managers out there to be the best they can and to be confident and competent at managing projects. I want them to feel good, to leverage their strengths and to focus on the 20% that contributes to 80% of their achievements. I want them to work smarter; not harder!

The Project Management Coaching Workbook I have written enables people to achieve this. It assists people in building confidence and in becoming highly valued and truly successful project management leaders.

If people want to become successful project leaders and believe that being able to coach is part of that, where should they start?

I would like to encourage everyone to imagine more and look around less. Listen to yourselves, be honest about the things you would like to achieve – and never give up!

My best advice is to get a coaching qualification and learn to coach that way. When you train with a good institution not only will you learn the core coaching techniques and when to apply them, you will also build a great network with other coaches and have someone to practice with.

I originally studied with The Coaching Academy in London which gave me a great foundation in personal performance coaching as well as corporate and executive coaching. The Coaches Training Institute (CTI) is also a good place to be trained.

When it comes to books I would recommend Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore and Co-Active Coaching by Laura Whitworth. They are invaluable resources for a new coach.

Can you coach someone whom you manage directly?

It is possible to coach someone whom you manage directly, but the relationship and the role of the coach is slightly different. Independent or external coaches can focus on their client’s goals and aspirations 100% and will often build a very trusting relationship where the coachee opens up and talks in confidence about very personal issues and aspirations. As a line manager you don’t have that independence because you have a lot of information and pre-conceived perceptions about the employee and because you have to also consider the needs of the organisation you both work for.

On the other hand, the manager is able to coach the employee in a variety of situations as and when they occur – and is also able to provide the best possible career opportunities for the coachee. When the manager doubles up as a coach she becomes a mentor and will at times make suggestions and tell the employee what to do.

As an independent coach it is not good practice to tell the coachee what to do. I would encourage all managers to also become coaches – however that would not replace the need for independent coaches.

I know you can’t coach everyone who reads A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, but have you got a few words of advice for us?

I would like to encourage everyone to imagine more and look around less. Listen to yourselves, be honest about the things you would like to achieve – and never give up! Read motivational books, surround yourselves by inspirational people, get a coach, listen to podcasts and attend events that interest you. When you mix with likeminded people you will be reminded of the things that are important to you and you will be more inclined to pursuing them.

Thanks, Susanne!

Read the review of Susanne’s book, The Project Management Coaching Workbook here.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


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