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3 easy ways to make criticism sting a little less

August 20, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
S.Phillip Vullo 404-312-1488 ©2011PhillipVullo

The Fortune 500 Insider Network is our newest online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobile & Business Solutions, has answered the question: How do you make criticism constructive?

One of the most gratifying things for me as a leader is to see people achieve what they never thought possible.

A lot of things go into making that happen. One of them, a very important one, depends on us as leaders. It’s the way we give constructive criticism — or, as I prefer to call it, constructive feedback.

There are many methods of giving feedback, including the so-called “sandwich method,” in which tough feedback is couched between positive comments. I suspect there isn’t a right or wrong way to do this, so I won’t pretend that my way is better, but it works for me because it’s authentic, honest and is delivered with candor. Your method will depend on your leadership style.

Inspire and engage people to do their best
My leadership style is about inspiring and engaging people to be their very best — and to achieve what they once thought wasn’t possible. I like to catch people doing things right and praise them immediately after — that’s when feedback is more meaningful and more useful to people.

Likewise, if I don’t like something they’re doing, I won’t wait until their six-month appraisal to tell them. I will talk honestly right away about what wasn’t right, and then coach them on how to do it better next time.


Face the facts
I’ve found that this feedback process works just as well with groups when you need to change their behavior in order to achieve your organization’s goals. It’s helped me succeed in leading teams of people do extraordinary things. When you get a group of people to change by giving them constructive feedback and encouraging them to face what I call “the brutal facts,” magical things happen.

Let me share an example from the time I was president of BellSouth Latin America. I ran a portfolio of 11 wireless companies in 11 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). We had 11 CEOs, each running their business independently. Each operation had a different board of directors and governing structure. The problem was that they were operating as local companies, but competing against regional and even global players. Clearly, we needed to change the way we operated, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

I decided to gather the 11 CEOs in a hotel conference room in Miami for a frank discussion about “the brutal facts.” I described the situation we were facing, and how if we worked together as a team — united, engaged and inspired — we could achieve what others thought would be impossible to do.

We emerged from that four-day meeting with a unified plan signed by all of us affirming our commitment to work as a team. Within a year, the Latin America portfolio — which had never made money before — turned net-income positive, well ahead of anybody’s expectations.

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Lead with integrity and credibility
Feedback is best received when given with candor in an environment of trust. And that begins with you.

As a leader, you must build your reputation as someone who has integrity (that is, who does the right things right) and credibility (doing what you said you were going to do). Once you’ve done that, you’ll find it easier to speak candidly about both the positive and the not-so positive. Not only will your constructive criticism be better received, your praise will also be more impactful because people will know it comes from someone they can trust.

That’s the kind of leader I strive to be: one who people will trust to give them the brutal facts when necessary, prompt and honest praise when earned, and the inspiration to do what they didn’t think was possible. When inspired people have a clear focus and a good plan, nothing can stand in their way. They’ll get the job done. If you can do that, you will have achieved one of the top levels of leadership.