Merit Career Development Blog | Entries from February 2015

Using Negative Feedback for Improved Performance

Receiving FeedbackThe old Johnny Mercer song says you should accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. When it comes to feedback, negative information may be what you should accentuate because it may be more meaningful to employees, and can even help them to become more productive and in tune with your company’s goals.

A recent study found that people may be more encouraged to change by hearing negatives. By about 3 to 1, people crave corrective feedback more than praise—as long as the corrective feedback comes in a constructive manner. Respondents in the study also believe corrective feedback does more to improve their performance than positive reactions. Corrective feedback—a nicer way of saying negative—includes suggestions for improvement, exploring new and better ways to do things, or pointing out something that was done in a less than optimal way. (Positive feedback is what you’d imagine: praise, reinforcement, and congratulatory comments. It’s no surprise that these tend to be much easier to deliver.)

How can you provide more effective constructive feedback? Consider these strategies:

  • Give more. You may be more comfortable giving all types of feedback if you do so regularly. Professor M.S. Rao advocates constant feedback, which goes hand in hand with continuous learning. Both support fast growth in careers, personal, or professional life. Feedback as a daily interaction becomes a natural part of the workplace rather than a dreaded annual event.

  • Focus forward. Look ahead with feedback so that you can help to direct future behavior in the right direction. Make specific suggestions about how you would like things to change.

  • Address the behavior, not the person. Focus on the specific behavior that you want to change, rather than personal traits, suggests Diane Gottsman, an etiquette and manners expert. For instance, this statement is too much about a character flaw: “You have no organizational skills and it showed in your presentation this morning.” This alternative gets specific about the action that needs to change: “It was clear that you were struggling to keep the audience’s attention on your report this morning, and I have some suggestions that I’d like to discuss.”

  • Actively listen. Feedback recipients need to feel that they have been heard, as a Fast Company article points out. In fact, you may want to ask the recipient for his or her feedback before offering your input. The employee may already know what needs to change. If so, it’s a great opportunity to compliment your employee’s insight and solicit ideas. Make sure you leave time for a response, and repeat what has been said to you to be sure you have heard right.

  • Control your emotions. Avoid giving feedback if you are angry or upset. If you become emotional during a feedback conversation, tell the person that you will need to think about the response and schedule a follow up meeting for another time.

  • Increase opportunities to make feedback more meaningful. Have a conversation after each project or assignment to shift the focus to career planning and how to mesh employee capabilities with those plans. Communication at the management level can note the up and coming stars and make sure the company retains these valuable individuals and continues to develop their talents.

To be an effective manager, giving feedback is a key skill. Merit Career Development offers leadership and communication courses that can help you hone your skills. For more information, please contact Jim Wynne at

Are You an Effective Listener? (Really?)

Are You Listening?We've all done it. You're standing talking with a coworker, and she asks a question. Suddenly, you realize your mind had wandered as she continued to talk. The little voice in your head said it was time for lunch...reminded you to follow up with a client...or maybe you were distracted by a colleague walking by. You weren’t paying attention. You weren’t listening.

Most people think they know how to listen, but although you hear the words, you may not fully understand the meaning behind them. Listening actively takes concentration and practice. It’s important in all interpersonal relationships—in the workplace and in our personal lives.

If you want to improve communication between you and your colleagues or clients, become more efficient in your work, or create more rewarding personal relationships, then listening effectively is critical. The good news is that these skills can be learned just as effective public speaking skills are learned. And here’s how:

  • Ssshhh - Stop talking and just listen. Many business cultures reward speaking - no matter what. But when we are talking - even inside our heads - we can’t hear and process what is being said to us. Even if it means there is a silence after the speaker finishes—while you prepare your response - let it be.

  • Body Language - According to Forbes, making and keeping eye contact is essential in Western cultures, where good eye contact equals paying attention. Face the speaker and fight the urge to check your cell phone or computer.

  • Practice - Listen to challenging material that requires concentration, such as a lecture or a sermon. Use these to sharpen and improve your vocabulary and your understanding of nonverbal cues - those you give as well as those you observe. Lean toward the speaker, nod, and give smiles and verbal cues (uh-huh, hmm, yes) of encouragement.

  • Study Up - Read about the topic of a presentation or an important meeting ahead of time. Leave any preconceived perceptions of a speaker, colleague, or topic at the door.

  • Be Attentive - Don't interrupt or jump to conclusions. And don't sketch out your response while he is still talking or think about what you want to say next. You run the risk of giving a reply that will be off the mark, and then your disinterest will be obvious.

  • Focus - Focus on the big picture as well as on the small details, watching for ways you can personally relate. Also, listen intentionally, consciously steering your mind back to the speaker when it wanders (because it always wants to stray).

  • Do Unto Others - According to Dr. John A. Kline, who has written extensively on leadership and communication, using a form of the Golden Rule is effective. Ask yourself, “How would I want someone to listen to me?” And then listen as if you were going to have to repeat the conversation in an hour - this time, as the speaker.

  • Ask Questions - Everyone listens through their past experiences and reacts accordingly. Take responsibility for understanding what’s been said. If you don’t, always ask, don’t assume. And, according to Sklatch, open-ended questions are the best way to gain clarity, such as, “Can you give me some examples of that?”

We all want to be heard and understood, and taking the steps to ensure we are doing the same for others is the best way to achieve this.

Thinking Outside the Box in Project Management

Thinking Outside the BoxExperienced project managers know that their work is about more than scheduling, assigning tasks, and tracking progress. While ultimately their job is to deliver on time and on budget, getting to the finish line often involves challenges that can’t be predicted and whose answers aren’t obvious. Good project managers are in the thick of things, analyzing the issues their teams face and leading in the development of their solutions.

This means that PMs need more than organizational and business skills. They need a sense of creativity and innovation that will allow them to find ways around problems ranging from random paperwork demands to the fallout from natural disasters. Though some might say project management is all about creating predictability, effective PMs aren’t afraid to think outside the box as they look for ways to hit their targets and improve the efficiency of their organizations.

For example, not long ago National Public Radio adopted an Agile-like approach to its creation of new programs. Rather than develop an idea in secret, launching it and then measuring its popularity, the network began releasing pilot programs and revamping them based on listener feedback – in effect conducting beta tests as part of its process. The result was that new titles like the TED Radio Hour and How To Do Everything were launched for an estimated one-third the cost of earlier programs.

NPR’s approach is a good example of how innovation can improve performance. Rather than blindly follow a traditional approach to program development, the network tailored its methodology to its business needs, achieving its goals with more flexibility, greater transparency, and reduced expense.

Of course, sometimes a project requires a different way of thinking from the beginning. One dramatic example occurred in 2014, when Australia’s Condor Energy needed to move 95 tons of custom-made heavy equipment from the UK to Australia - in 14 days.

On the face of it, that’s an impossible task. Such cargoes usually move by ship, which can take months to navigate between ports halfway around the world from each other. Condor’s vendor, Airland Logistics, addressed the challenge by surveying the equipment while much of it was still being manufactured, then arranging for it to be flown to Australia as component parts on a single heavy-lift aircraft. After it landed, the equipment was assembled on-site. Along the way, Airland had personnel on the ground to ensure loading and unloading occurred safely, that customs requirements were settled ahead of time, and that transportation challenges from the airport to the final delivery site were anticipated and addressed.

If the dynamics of Airland’s project were unusual, the pressure on its PMs was no more real than that faced by others as they work to deliver on their own commitments, whether that’s implementing ERP software, constructing office buildings, or opening manufacturing plants. Today’s project managers must be able to think creatively – to imagine and recognize solutions that aren’t evident, and then be decisive enough to commit to them and move ahead.

Merit Career Development can help you “think outside the box” with our extensive project management curriculum. Our Project Management with Simulation course uses a state-of-the-art computer-based simulation game that tests participants’ skills in managing a real project. Participants are able to put into practice their respective knowledge, look for original solutions, try out new strategies, and see immediate results.