How to Give Constructive Criticism in the Workplace


Nov 13, 2015

Management, Resources


Criticism is almost unanimously dreaded and despised. No one wants to be at the receiving end of criticism because it instantly conjures feelings of disapproval and embarrassment.

As any leader will tell you, giving criticism is just as uncomfortable. You don’t want to be someone who makes life difficult for others or offends them. However, as a business owner, you will more than likely need to dispense workplace criticism at one point or another.

Fortunately, when done right, criticism offers numerous benefits, including clarified expectations, personal development, stronger relationships, and organizational growth. The secret is to be clear, concise, and – most importantly – constructive.

Constructive criticism in the workplace is not about exerting meaningless authority – it is about empowering others to blossom into their fullest potential. When approached with positive intention, constructive criticism will elevate an individual’s performance and escalate an institution’s profitability. It is a win-win.

Here are ten tips to effectively dole out constructive criticism and get positive results:


Keep It Private

Would you like to be singled out in a group? Not really.

Offering feedback to a specific person in the presence of others is never a good idea. Such thoughtlessness can harm the employee’s self-esteem and beget feelings of resentment towards you.

Choose a private, non-threatening location. You don’t want to hurry your discussion, so schedule 30-60 minutes during a time slot with no other competing demands. Turn off technology and ensure that you aren’t disturbed.

Being respectful about your employee’s boundaries and schedule will set the stage for a productive meeting.


Start with the Positive

The “Feedback Sandwich” – or Positive-Improvement-Positive (PIP) – method is a widely used criticism technique.

The premise is simple: Preface and post-face your criticism by highlighting something positive about your employees. This will reduce their defensiveness, make them more receptive to your suggestions, and motivate them to act on your advice.

Kicking off the discussion with a word of appreciation will let your employees know that you are not interested in tearing them down. You are not their enemy. If anything, you want to help them flourish in your organization.

So balance what’s good about your employee with what can be improved for maximum effectiveness.


Do Not Compare

The worst thing you can ever say to an employee while offering constructive criticism is: “Why can’t you be as effective as X?”

By pitting one employee against another, you will, at best, be accused of having some personal agenda or playing favoritism. At worst, you will be breeding an atmosphere of unhealthy competition.

Prevent a vicious game of one-upmanship by focusing on one employee at a time. Motivate your employees to be better than themselves – keep the rest out of the conversation.


Be Specific and Timely

You might be tempted to take a roundabout approach by cushioning your suggestions in vague platitudes. After all, you want to ‘soften the blow of your criticism’, right? Big mistake.

Being wishy-washy will only baffle your exasperated employees. Avoid misunderstandings by being specific about your concerns and your recommendations. Precisely explain what bothered you and offer tangible tips for improvement.

For instance, don’t just say, “Your presentation could have been better.” Instead, provide a concrete ‘fix’: “The slides looked cluttered. The next time, limit to one point or example per slide.” Remember that each person’s perspective is unique. Unless you clearly communicate your frustrations, your employee cannot learn from this experience and do better the next time.

The timing of your criticism is also important. Don’t let your dissatisfaction intensify before you finally lash out in anger. Nip the issue in the bud.

Your employees will be grateful for such expedient feedback.


Do Not Spoon-Feed Solutions

While you need to make your position clear, request your employee’s inputs on how to improve a particular situation.  In other words, do not simply tell them what to do. Encourage them to think respond and expand upon your notes.

By involving your employees in the problem-solving process, you are demonstrating your belief in their abilities, which makes them feel valued.

Most people don’t want to be provided all the answers; they just need an unbiased third-party to nudge them in the right direction.  Give your employees the opportunity to assume responsibility, be accountable, and feel accomplished by encouraging such ‘self-directed solutions’.


Do Not Get Personal

Emotions and egos can run amok in a feedback session.

Even if your employees are on the verge of erupting, it behooves you – as their superior – to keep your cool. Do not let your feelings overshadow your purpose, which is to boost their confidence, performance and effectiveness.

Some ways to remain civil while proffering criticism:

  1. Refrain from making personal attacks
  2. Separate person from behavior by avoiding ‘You’ statements. For instance, replace “You gave a bad presentation” with “The presentation could have been better by…”
  3. Rely on objective facts and not subjective assumptions
  4. Tackle one issue at a time to prevent your employee from feeling inundated
  5. Don’t ask for unrealistic compromises, like reprimanding an employee for leaving promptly at the end of the work day to pick up their child from day-care. Find ways to maximize their output during working hours instead.
  6. Avoid a confrontational tone, body language or posture. Sit back and relax. Your employees will follow suit.
  7. Don’t obsess over past mistakes – look ahead.


Let your employees talk

Effective criticism is a two-way street – an engaging dialogue.

You should give your employees a chance to explain their side of things. This indicates that you care about their thoughts, their ideas and their feelings. Ask them to be completely honest about any personal grievances. Find out how you – as an employer – can nurture a more creative and collaborative work environment.

Your empathy will go a long way in smoothing ruffled feathers and strengthening the employee-employer relationship.


End with an Actionable Plan

The singular mission of constructive criticism is to improve your employee’s future performance. So do not end the meeting without measurable goals.

You should work with your employee to come up with some plan for being more productive in the future. Throw a fun challenge that will rouse your employee to accomplish their objectives.

Follow-up a few days after your meeting to assess their progress and extend additional guidance. Appreciate your employees for their dedicated efforts to evolve within your organization (and in their career.)


Constructive Criticism is a Collaborative Process

Performance appraisals can be positive and proactive if you and your employee collaborate for the best results. Make them feel welcome and wanted in your organization. Show that you believe in their talent. Spotlight their strengths and help them overcome their weaknesses.

Give them the space and the time to implement your recommendations. Remain accessible to their questions and concerns.

Your sincerity and support will be rewarded with committed, creative and conscientious employees, thereby leading to a happier and hopeful workplace environment. Keep this up and the time might come when feedback won’t feel so bad anymore. Your employees might even look forward to connecting with you.