There is something in business (and life) we never learn well enough – how to criticize and encourage those who rely on us for advice.

It’s more than a skill; it’s an art. Because, like other arts, criticism and praise are always imperfect (so they contain within them both the affirmation of their need and the possibility of their improvement).

Right now, there are people in your life whose work and behavior you are called on to evaluate, either regularly or from time to time. They may be immediate subordinates, clients, business associates, or competitors, for example.

These people can make your future immensely richer, fuller, and happier, but it’s equally true that they may rise up against you. Much depends on how you treat them. (Don’t think for a moment that just because someone seems weak or powerless you don’t have to be concerned about him. It is the meek who will inherit your future . . . not only because they have a lot of pent-up energy, but also because you won’t see them coming.)

How do you provide someone with productive feedback? That is, how do you get him to quickly and substantially develop the skills and talents you are looking for? How do you get him to see things your way? How do you get him to succeed?

There’s a Reason They Call it the Golden Rule

The first and most important secret of criticizing others is to forgot about yourself.

If you criticize simply to give yourself some advantage, it will be apparent and resisted. If you criticize to demonstrate your superiority, it will be felt and rejected. If you criticize to exorcise some angry spirit inside you, it will be apparent and resented.

Criticize, if you can, because you want to help. If you can clear away other motivations, you will be successful. By putting yourself out of the picture, it is much easier to have good judgment. You have a much better idea about what to say and when, because your thinking is not clouded by self-interest. Moreover, your enthusiasm shows through. And the person you are helping will respond to that.

Here Are a Few Rules in the Making Worth Thinking About

Begin with a show of faith.

You need fertile soil in which to plant your ideas. Fertile soil is nourished soil. So always begin any relationship with regular doses of praise.

Resist the urge to criticize first, even if your first experience is negative. Frankness may feel good, but it is often counterproductive. Find something that is good and worthy and praise it. Do it publicly and repeatedly. You need to build a foundation of trust –something you can stand on later when it comes time to say something critical.

It’s Just As Important to Give Criticism When It’s Due

In the world of copywriting, I am known to be a fierce editor. It is not beyond me to write “gibberish” in the margin of a protégé’s heartfelt writing. Recently, PH (one of the most successful copywriters I know and himself a former protégé of mine) sent out a memo remarking on some harsh criticism that I leveled at a writer (and a good friend of mine) whom we had both been mentoring for some time. Here is what PH had to say:

“Those comments on AB really take me back. They are direct and right on the money. Now, I truly realize why I’ve had some success writing this stuff. I remember reading comments similar to these and they jolted . . . forced . . . embarrassed me into becoming a better writer. It’s good, in a way, that AB wrote such a terrible copy. Otherwise you wouldn’t have responded as you did. And AB would never have gotten the benefit of your frank criticism. A turning point in AB’s copywriting career will be the next letter he writes. I now realize that’s how DM and I got better. There’s no way we’d be here if you or anyone else had ‘pussyfooted’ around bad copy and tried to spare our feelings.”

But here’s the point…my earliest thought about PH was that he was a natural-born copywriter…and I said so. Not just once, but many times over. This, I think, gave him the legs to stand my criticism when it finally came.

Here’s How the Process Works

The following is a formula for training someone (an employee or a protege) that should work for you:

* First, make him believe that you believe in him.

* Next, work with him for a while, giving him helpful hints and gentle criticism. Expect some progress during this process, but not a lot. What you are really looking to do is establish (a) your authority (which you both need) and (b) a common vocabulary (so you don’t confuse him).

* Then – after he has reached a plateau — hit him with some direct, strong advice. Don’t be nasty, but be honest. Expect him to be devastated. Ignore his first, defensive response.

If he comes back later open-minded and eager to progress, you’ll have made the leap you both needed. Progress should come pretty quickly after that point.

Bonus: The same is true for your own development. Consider where you are (along this path) with your own mentor(s). Welcome the time when you get to take the hard blow.