Help Me Help You: How to Best Deliver Constructive Criticism

Business.com / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

A tough part of being management means delivering some not-so-welcome feedback. Here's how to do it with care and positivity.

There is a right way and a wrong way to deliver constructive criticism.

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 worst.

One of the primary responsibilities of management is to help employees reach their peak potential. This often means providing criticism, even when it is difficult to do so.

The key to constructive criticism is to get your point across without talking down to the other party. It sounds simple, but it takes a targeted approach to ensure that you don’t cross the line.

Related Article: Dear BDC: How Do I Give Constructive Criticism?

The Data You Need to Know

PsychTests.com conducted a study of more than 3,000 people to get a better feel for the impact of criticism. These takeaways will open your eyes:

  • 13 percent of people refuse to accept negative feedback
  • 41 percent of people have gotten into an argument with somebody because they felt unjustly criticized
  • 29 percent believe that people criticize others to inflict harm, not help
  • 34 percent of people lose motivation and don’t work as hard after being criticized

With statistics like these, it is easy to see why providing constructive criticism can be so challenging. Even if you have the best intentions, and even if you take the right approach, it is possible you could insult somebody. Subsequently, they could become upset to the point of arguing. Furthermore, it may lead to a lack of motivation and production, which is another issue entirely.

If the above isn’t enough to open your eyes, a study published by SAGE Publications—The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model—may change the way you look at things.  

Broken down by the Harvard Business Review, here is the most telling excerpt:

“The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments to negative comments that the participants made to one another.”

Once again, another sign that managers must tread softly when providing feedback.

What Now?

At this point, you may be scared to open your mouth. You may be worried that saying the wrong thing could cause more harm than good.

You don’t have to feel this way. There are ways to deliver constructive criticism with the idea of benefiting everybody involved.

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 key objectives can keep you on track:

  • Make the person aware that they need to work on something in particular, all the while doing so in a positive manner.
  • Don’t just provide criticism. Instead, provide criticism along with a solution (or solutions) to the problem.
  • Take steps to decrease the likelihood of the same problem in the future.

Take, for example, a salesperson who has found it difficult to remain organized. Here is what you can do:

  • Schedule a meeting to address the problem, making note of the benefits associated with staying organized at all times.
  • Get “hands on” to ensure that the person is aware of the best solution, such as implementing the use of CRM software.
  • Provide actionable steps for avoiding the same trouble in the future. For example, a step by step checklist for staying organized.

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

Related Article: Six Keys to Managing a Team That's Smarter Than You

Follow These Tips

When the time comes to deliver construction criticism, these three tips could make or break the process:

1. Don’t Focus Solely on the Person

When you focus solely on the person, your constructive criticism can be misconstrued as a personal attack. Instead, spend your time examining the situation as a whole.

Here is an example of what you should not say when discussing a character trait:

“You never take the time to be friendly to others. This makes it almost impossible to spend anytime around you.”

Combative, don’t you think?

Here is a better way to phrase it:

“You have so much going for you when you are friendly to others. If you make an effort to show this all day long, the sky is the limit.”

See the difference? In the second example, 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 his or her favor.

2. Be Specific

When you are 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.

If you “dance around,” it can be difficult to get your point across. Here is an example of specific feedback (based on our sales example above):

“Tom, take the time to implement the CRM software that the rest of the team is using. I am sure it will help you achieve even greater results.”

And now for an example of vague feedback:

“Tom, don’t forget to check out the CRM software if you get a chance.”

The specific example is direct, to the point, and almost a command. On the flipside, the vague example is nothing more than a halfhearted attempt with the outside hope that the person will listen.

3. Provide Ideas for Improvement

Constructive criticism without ideas for improvement can often come across as a personal slam. This may not be your intention, but it could be the end result.

If you are going to provide feedback, make sure you are ready to follow it up with actionable advice.

Sticking with the sales example, here are two ways to provide constructive criticism after a presentation. Let’s start with the bad:

“The presentation missed the mark because you neglected to provide data and statistics.”

In your mind, this may be enough. But remember, you aren’t on the other side of the table. Here is a better way of saying this:

“Overall, the presentation was solid, but what I would do is provide more data and statistics. You can find plenty of information by scouring our monthly sales reports, speaking with Kathy, and reading our most recent newsletter.”

The criticism is the same, but in the second example you provide detailed information that can result in immediate improvement.

Final Thoughts

The fear of a misstep should not stop you from delivering constructive criticism. Instead, do the following:

  • Set objectives.
  • Focus on the situation, as opposed to the person.
  • Be specific.
  • Provide solutions.

When you do this, your constructive criticism will “land” and everybody will come out a winner in the end.

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