Stephen King and the Definitive Guide to Employee Criticism

Stephen King

In 1964, when he was a sophomore at Lisbon Falls High School in Maine, a 17-year-old Stephen King worked as a sportswriter for a local newspaper. After turning in his first piece – a recap of a basketball game – his editor cut out nearly half of it, chastising King for overwriting.

“I took my fair share of English Lit classes in my two remaining years at Lisbon, and my fair share of composition, fiction and poetry classes in college, but John Gould (the editor) taught me more about any of them, in no more than ten minutes,” King wrote in his autobiography, On Writing.

King would go on to sell over 350 million books, all while remembering that lesson to omit all the unnecessary words. And while there are a lot of reasons for King’s success, Gould’s pointed, unabashed criticism certainly played a part.

Managers have the same opportunity to do for their employees what Gould did for King: provide powerful, constructive criticism that can drastically improve their performance. And that can have huge ripple effects, like a vastly improved business, or helping someone become one of the most successful authors in American history.

The question is how do you criticize effectively? Well, here are some rules to live by:

1. Give Only One Criticism For Every 5.6 Compliments

A study by the Harvard Business Review of 60 business units found that the best ones had a compliment-to-criticism ratio of 5.6 to 1, or 5.6 compliments for every one criticism.

Why? The study concluded that criticism can serve as a “whack on the side of the head,” i.e. a great way to change a behavior. But if it is used too often, much like a whack on the side of the head, it does little more than render an employee useless.

Compliments and recognition are key to building morale. The effectiveness of criticism, meanwhile, has an inverse correlation with its use: the more it’s used, the less effective it becomes.

2. Criticize Behavior, Not The Person

When you do criticize someone, it is crucial not to make a generic gripe about their character – “you’re unreliable” – but instead a specific complaint about their behavior – “two times in the past month, your work has been submitted late.”

The reason why is if you specifically point out the behavior you want an employee to change, they then can change it. In the example above, for instance, they can make getting work in on time a priority.

However, if you just call them “unreliable” and give them no real direction, what are they going to do? Probably just go on being unreliable. After all, isn’t that what you said they are?

3. Don’t Wait For The Performance Review

Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle, wrote a piece in 2012 for the New York Timesexplaining why he got rid of the performance review. His reasoning was simple: why should I wait until an annual meeting to give an employee feedback when I should be giving feedback all along?

That’s a very sensible argument. In fact, pushing back criticism until performance reviews or, worse off, not giving it at all is a clear indication of passive-aggressive management.

If you have an issue with an employee, you need to let them know. Otherwise, you are wasting valuable time that employee could use improving themselves.

4. Make The Business Case For Change

A key principle of effective businesses today is transparency – showing your entire workforce what the business’s goals are and how you plan to achieve those goals. The reason companies do this is that if employees have a holistic view of the organization, they can act more strategically.

The same rule should be applied to criticism. Tell the employee not only what behavior needs to be changed – purchase orders aren’t sent out in a timely matter – but also the business reason it needs to be changed – the longer a customer has to wait for a purchase order, the less chance they’ll sign off on it.

Often, when a person is criticized, they have a tendency to think you, the manager, has some sort of personal vendetta against them. If you can show them the business reason for the criticism, it becomes clear that motivation for the critique is professional, not personal.


Part of being a great manager is giving effective criticism. If an employee doesn’t know what they are doing poorly, they can never improve.

That said, criticism is dangerous medicine, and if it used too much, can kill the patient (metaphorically). But, if used effectively, it can absolutely make the difference between a good employee and a great one.

Just ask Stephen King.

Paul Petrone

Today’s guest post is by Paul Petrone, a staff writer for LinkedIn Talent Solution’s Blog “working to discover the Holy Grail of hiring”.

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