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Help Me Help You: How to Best Deliver Constructive Criticism

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Staff writer
business.com Staff
Updated May 26, 2022

There is a right way and a wrong way to deliver constructive criticism, especially in the workplace. Take the right approach, and all parties involved will benefit. Take the wrong approach, however, and the entire situation could take a turn for the worse.

One of the primary responsibilities of people management is to help employees reach their peak potential. This often means providing criticism, even when it’s difficult to do so. The key to constructive criticism is getting your point across without talking down to the other party. It sounds simple, but it takes a targeted approach to ensure you don’t cross the line.

Giving constructive criticism in the workplace

Constructive criticism in the workplace is a form of actionable feedback focused on improving some aspect of employee performance. It can play an essential role in a company’s overall performance management process. When done correctly, constructive criticism is conveyed in a positive manner with the good intention of employee improvement. It is not the act of attacking or tearing someone down for poor performance.

Whenever you’re offering constructive criticism, it’s critical to come prepared with clear and specific examples of what the employee needs to improve, as well as possible solutions and next steps for performance improvement. That way, you aren’t simply complaining about the employee’s work, but providing them opportunities to grow and make things right.

TipTip: Try using project management software to oversee your business’s workflow; this helps you identify where employees may be falling short so you can adjust tasks and give proper guidance.

How to offer effective constructive criticism

When the time comes to deliver constructive criticism, following these steps can help ensure your criticism is well received.

1. Schedule a time for private feedback.

No one likes to be surprised by constructive criticism, especially not in front of other people. Such instances are a surefire way to put the employee on the defense, which is not ideal for receiving feedback. To ensure the employee is in the right headspace to accept constructive criticism, schedule a time to meet with them, and be honest about the topic. Briefly explaining what you want to talk about beforehand will allow them time to prepare mentally and physically.

Since you don’t want to surprise or embarrass the employee, it’s important that your meeting is conducted somewhere private. Regardless of how well-intended you are, offering constructive feedback will not achieve your desired result if your whole team is listening in. Keeping your feedback private will allow you and the employee to have an open and honest conversation without anyone else interfering.

2. Focus on actions, not personality traits.

When you focus solely on the person, your constructive criticism can be misconstrued as a personal attack on their character. This is another way you may inadvertently make the person become defensive. Instead, focus on specific actions that need to be addressed so that they are receptive to change.

For example, let’s say an employee is repeatedly turning in assignments with the same error. Instead of attacking their character by saying they’re lazy or incompetent, you could teach them the proper way to fix the error and then suggest that double-checking their assignments before submitting them would help improve their work and reduce the amount of time spent on corrections afterward.

By pointing out the benefits of changing their actions, you are turning a negative into a positive. It shows the person that while they need to make a change, doing so could work in their favor.

3. Be specific.

When you’re specific with your constructive criticism, down to the finest of details, there is no gray area. The other person knows exactly what you are saying. But if you’re vague with your feedback, it can be challenging to get your point across, and your criticism won’t have the intended effect.

Consider this scenario: An employee keeps forgetting to use the CRM software that the rest of the team uses, which has resulted in cross-function problems. Vague feedback could sound something like, “Tom, don’t forget to check out the CRM software if you get a chance.” That doesn’t convey that there is an ongoing issue and doesn’t let Tom know why he needs to use the CRM software.

A leader needs to be specific about what the problem is, what they want the employee to do and how this action will benefit them. Specific feedback for this instance could sound something like, “Tom, please take the time to properly implement the CRM software that the rest of the team is using. I am sure it will help you achieve even greater results.”

This advice is direct, to the point and almost a command. In contrast, the vague example is nothing more than a half-hearted attempt at guidance, with the outside hope that the person will listen.

4. Provide ideas and resources for improvement.

Giving constructive criticism without offering ideas for improvement can often come across as a personal slam and make a manager appear unhelpful. This may not be your intention, but it could be the end result if there’s no context or guidance given. If you’re going to provide feedback, make sure you’re ready to follow it up with actionable advice on how the employee can improve.

For example, if an employee gave a terrible presentation that lacked important information, instead of simply telling them that the presentation missed the mark because it didn’t have the necessary statistics, you could say something like, “Overall, the presentation was solid, but in the future, please provide more data and statistics around our sales numbers. You can find plenty of information by scouring our monthly sales reports, speaking with Kathy and reading our most recent newsletter.”

With this approach, you’re clear in your criticism about the presentation but also providing detailed information that can result in immediate improvement. If you want the employee to improve, you need to point them in the right direction. This is the “constructive” part of “constructive criticism.”

5. Create a supportive environment of continuous feedback.

Foster a supportive workplace that engages in both formal and informal feedback in the form of an open dialogue. A supportive environment and nurturing tone can improve an employee’s receptiveness to constructive criticism. For example, instead of using negative language, keep it positive and encouraging. Focus on how the changes you’re suggesting can benefit the employee and the company.

Emphasize that you always want to ensure the employee is set up for success by regularly discussing any issues that arise. Also make sure the conversation is always a two-way street. Give the employee time to ask questions and offer their perspective on things. This not only helps them feel valued, but it can also clear up any confusion on expectations and gain their buy-in.

FYIFYI: You should use positive language when offering constructive criticism, but avoid the “feedback sandwich” method – offering praise before and after the constructive criticism. This technique becomes ineffective if your criticism is too vague and hidden by compliments.

More tips for delivering constructive criticism in the workplace

Before you dive in and begin to provide feedback, you must set your objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? What results will you be happy with? No two situations are the same, but these strategies can keep you on track:

  • In a positive manner, make the person aware that they need to work on something in particular.
  • Don’t just provide criticism; provide solutions to the problem.
  • Take the necessary steps to decrease the likelihood of the same issue occurring in the future.

For example, if you have a salesperson who has difficulty being organized, here is what you can do to deliver constructive criticism successfully:

  • Schedule a meeting to address the problem, noting the benefits associated with staying organized at all times.
  • Get “hands on” to ensure the person is aware of the best solution, such as implementing the use of CRM software and other organizational tools helpful in sales.
  • Provide actionable steps for avoiding the same trouble in the future. In this case, you can give the employee a detailed checklist for staying organized.

It is one thing to set objectives. It is another thing entirely to have a plan for providing constructive feedback based on those objectives.

The benefits of constructive criticism in the workplace

When constructive criticism is delivered the right way, it can serve many benefits for you and your employees.

  • It improves employee performance. The American Psychological Association reported on a constructive criticism study that found that leaders who fostered supportive environments for feedback had much better performance improvements than those operating in unsupportive environments. When criticism is given constructively in a supportive climate, employees are more open to accepting it and can improve their performance by acting on the feedback in a timely manner. [Related article: 7 Tools to Measure Employee Performance]
  • It fosters creativity and brainstorming. A workplace that expects and thrives on constructive feedback is primed for growth and innovation. A study on cooperative criticism found that “the optimal context for creativity in brainstorming is a cooperative one in which criticism occurs but is interpreted constructively because the brainstorming parties perceive their goals as aligned.” Encouraging the employee to set and track these goals can also keep them motivated and on task.
  • It enhances collaboration. Creating an environment where employees and managers feel confident engaging in open feedback and constructive criticism can be a great way to improve collaboration. Instead of feeling as though they are being attacked for poor behavior and are on their own, employees are more likely to receive constructive criticism well if they are invited to work with someone on improvements. Peer mentoring, career coaching and group projects are all ways employees and leaders can help one another become better at their respective jobs.

Constructive feedback can help both employees and managers grow, develop their skills, think more creatively and become more productive. When delivered correctly, it’s a win-win for organizations and employees alike.

Image Credit:

Sitthiphong / Getty Images

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
business.com Staff
Skye Schooley is a staff writer at business.com and Business News Daily, where she has written more than 200 articles on B2B-focused topics including human resources operations, management leadership, and business technology. In addition to researching and analyzing products that help business owners launch and grow their business, Skye writes on topics aimed at building better professional culture, like protecting employee privacy, managing human capital, improving communication, and fostering workplace diversity and culture.