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Raise the bar for your star

The right way to push your best employees

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

No one’s perfect, and eventually you will need to prod even your No. 1 star to shape up. If you only point out failings in your mediocre workers—and overlook weaknesses in your top professionals— you may face morale problems.

Your “pets” may conclude they’re above criticism and stop learning or improving. And your lesser lights will grow to resent their peers, who seem to be held to a different standard.

Take these steps to deliver gentle criticism of your prized staffers:

Replace fear with facts. If you dread having to level with your top employee, put things in perspective. Realize that you control how you broach a delicate topic, and your criticism need not alienate your star.

Rather than stew in your own anxiety, write down what you want to achieve from the conversation. Examples include, “Improve Bill’s talent for collaborating,” or, “Help Mary identify new ways to speak up in meetings.” Then list facts or concrete suggestions that support your criticism. This becomes your outline when it’s time to talk with your employee.

Avoid “killer phrases.” Some bosses assume that their best employees are also the most emotionally strong or resilient. They figure these individuals can accept harsh or even insulting criticism. But just because someone is a great worker does not mean you should discard tact or use such deflating statements as, “You’re screwing up big-time,” or, “So you left your brains at home this morning.” Level with your stars civilly—just as you would with anyone else.

Apply a higher standard. Preface your criticism by saying that “while I wouldn’t mention this to an average worker, I think you’ll respond well to it.” Show that you expect more from this winner.

Focus on the future. Show outstanding employees how much more they can accomplish by learning new skills. Rather than ticking off a laundry list of mistakes, emphasize the rewards that await them for continuing to improve.

“My best manager needed to organize his time better,” says a bank vice president. “So I compared him to Michael Jordan in his second or third year in the pros. I said, ‘Like Jordan, you can build an incredible career if you keep getting better. Here’s one way you can make that happen.’”

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