Constructive Criticism as an IT Imperative

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I’ve said before that being an IT manager would be easy if it wasn’t for the IT staff!

Technology tends to be more predictable than people. And effectively managing technologists, a smart, determined and sometimes freakily focused and opinionated group of individuals is like. . .well, it’s like corralling a gang of kids and focusing their considerable energy in a specific direction. When well done, the results can be amazing. But they don’t always behave the way you’d like, and that’s the price you pay for all that power than you are harnessing. Discipline can sometimes be required. Just like a parent disciplining a child, the punishment for misbehavior in an IT group must match the “crime”. You can’t fire someone just because you are angry and want to. This would not generally be viewed as good IT policy. If a typically good IT team member makes a mistake or inadvertently breaks a company policy, it simply becomes a teaching moment. That said, if someone does something dangerous, illegal, or totally contrary to company policy, as an IT executive it is imperative that you act clearly, decisively, and quickly.

There are many different types of employee discipline. There’s a lot more to blog about in future such as the best techniques for written warnings and termination within your IT group. My focus here is a gentle yet very effective form of discipline, constructive criticism, which is also referred to as constructive feedback.

In my many years as IT executive and CIO, I’ve often had the situation of a good technologist doing the wrong thing. Let’s face it, IT strategies, IT operations, demands upon IT as an integral part of the organization—these elements are becoming more complicated with IT having more and more connections to the core competencies of the business. With more moving parts, more technology within and outside the firewall and more exposure to internal and external clients, the challenges for individual contributors within IT continue to grow. To have a clear view of the broader strategies in play, be fully aware of all the guidelines and rules and behave so as to do their particular job effectively and efficiently without inadvertently crossing a boundary is harder. It could be due to a lack of skill in a particular area or it may be confusion regarding the rules. In all cases, it’s your job as IT manager to take this technical talent aside and explain what he/she is doing wrong, the implications to the organization or project, and clearly communicate what is needed to improve/correct the situation. This is constructive criticism. It can be particularly challenging for IT leaders as they sometimes do not have deep understanding of every particular technology their team deals with, so good questioning and listening skills are also important.

If you are an IT manager facing these issues, here are a few things to consider when providing constructive criticism and enabling a teaching moment with members of your group:

  1. Start by talking about something that the employee is doing well
  2. Say that, in general, he/she is doing good work, but that it sounds like help is needed in a particular area
  3. Confirm what you have observed or understand and get agreement on the facts
  4. Talk about the issue in a friendly, mentoring, and teaching type manner
  5. Make sure you actively listen to the thinking that caused the person to make the decision they did or to fail to act the way you would expect
  6. Discuss specific steps that will help correct the issue
  7. Agree to a date and/or time to have a follow up discussion on the topic
  8. Change the subject — “how ‘about those Sox!” “How’s that new baby doing?”

The order of these steps is designed to:

  • Make the employee initially feel safe and thus not defensive.
  • Be sure the employee understands the issue
  • Define action items and establish a timeframe for correction
  • Leave the employee with a positive feeling and willing to accept the needed feedback and follow through on the defined action plan

When I think back on my career in relation to constructive criticism, a memory comes to mind when I was on the receiving end. Early in my IT career, I sometimes did a poor job proofreading my presentations. I was passionate about the technical content and failed to be attentive to other details. My IT boss at the time, who I still have great respect for, took me aside, and explained the vital importance of proofreading. He helped me develop a process to correct the issue. At the end of our conversation, I felt thankful for his help, but I also understood quite clearly that it was a correction I was required to make . . .and quickly. His guidance stood me in good stead as I rose up through IT management, ultimately to CIO.

Hopefully, even as an IT executive, you will at times be the receiver of constructive criticism. That said, consider the following:

  • Always welcome constructive criticism, even if you don’t like to hear it, or even like the person delivering it. It may be quality advice
  • Feel free to solicit constructive criticism from those you trust. It could provide you with valuable insight regarding how other people perceive you
  • Constructive criticism is a gift that indicates respect—for you as a member of IT and for the important work IT does.
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