From Both Sides: How to Use Constructive Criticism in the Workplace

Almost everyone can pinpoint behaviors in their peers, leaders and employees they’d like to change, but few people can voice these problems clearly. When it comes to offering constructive criticism, most workplace professionals tend to offer too much positive advice (meaning the recipient doesn’t learn or grow) or too much negative criticism that beats employees down. There is a happy medium between them both.

Learning to give constructive criticism is an art, but so is learning to receive it. Let’s look at this concept from both sides: giving and receiving constructive criticism.

How to Give Constructive Criticism

The first problem with criticism is that employers and employees tend to differ on what types of feedback is constructive.

There’s a disconnect between how managers and employees view feedback, leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write. More than half of employees asked think managers are more effective when they give praise. However, the majority of employers (73 percent) think they are more effective when they give negative feedback.

Managers need to offer a fair balance between negative and positive feedback if they are going to be effective. Over time, your team members will be more likely to appreciate your negative feedback if they know it is presented with good intentions. Follow these five tips to improve your delivery of constructive criticism.

1. Choose Your Words Carefully

When you present constructive criticism, try to avoid certain words and phrases that can play on the recipient’s anxiety and make them feel vulnerable, Kat Boogaard at The Muse advises.

In particular, she recommends avoiding the phrases “You always…” and “Everyone has noticed…” when offering criticism. These phrases make it seem like you repeatedly make the same mistake and no one has pointed it out — as if you’re the only one who doesn’t see it.

Imagine being told, “Everyone has noticed that you always have toilet paper stuck on your shoe.” It makes the recipient feel frustrated that no one pointed out the problem before.

2. Know What Feedback Your Team Can Handle

It’s important to take each employee into consideration individually when you offer constructive criticism, which is one of the main reasons to offer it privately.

Daniel Kline, author of Worst Ideas Ever, says that your employees have varying tolerances of criticism. You might have had an employee previously who can handle any critique, but now face peers and workers who don’t have that same tolerance.

“For example, younger workers who excelled in school may have very little, if any, experience with being told their work needs improvement,” he writes. “That may be a common knock on millennials, but I've found it to be true for people of all age groups.”

Knowing what criticism your employees can handle, and how much, can help you develop a plan to offer advice.

3. Focus on Current Projects and Topics

No one wants to read a novel about their faults, so try to provide your criticism in small doses and focus on the present situation. In fact, the ability to focus on the present and the topic at hand is one of the main features of constructive criticism, Martin Luenendonk, Co-Founder of Cleverism, says.

“Constructive criticism places an immense spotlight on the topic-in-hand rather than things of the past, it’s important for opinions to be focused on your current situation,” he writes. Unless your employee has specifically asked for general feedback over a longer period of time, stick to providing criticism that can help them now, with one specific project or problem that they’re dealing with.  

4. End With Actionable Items

Finish constructive suggestions on a future-focused note, Anne Fisher at Fortune suggests. Come up with action items that your team member, peer, or manager can apply to their workday. This could mean communicating more or speaking up in meetings. Either way, this allows the recipient to create goals for themselves for improvement, rather than wallowing in their faults.  

5. Ask For Feedback In Return

More employees and leaders are embracing constructive criticism and asking for feedback in return after they provide their own thoughts. Kerry Medina at Hospitality Careers explains this concept, known as 360-degree feedback, where employees, employers, and peers all offer constructive criticism.

Medina emphasizes the importance of being constructive here, as negative feedback presented unfairly will directly hurt the company. For example, if an employee feels unfairly reviewed, they are likely to give less work back to their boss. If a manager feels attacked, it will affect how they lead.

These are just a few steps you should consider when offering constructive criticism. For more advice, Meredith Wood at business financial solutions provider Fundera, has a great infographic managers can use when offering feedback to their employees. Among them, her tips include:

  • Prepare what you want to say before you offer your criticism.

  • Offer constructive criticism in person so the recipient can ask questions.

  • Provide specific examples to your team member.

  • Don’t drag the conversation out longer than it needs to be.  

This chart can prepare you to offer feedback based on the needs of your team.

How to Receive Constructive Criticism

Giving criticism is hard, but it can be made harder when the recipient shuts down what you have to say.

“By failing to assess all feedback boldly and with humility, we are losing what may be the most valuable business-building advice we will ever get: the truth about other people's experiences with us, our team and our businesses,” Wendy Keller, CEO of Keller Media, writes.  

Most people who offer criticism do so because they want you to improve — not because they want to tear you down. Follow these steps to become better at receiving criticism.

1. Create Channels to Hear Feedback

While both employers and employees need to find opportunities to receive constructive criticism, the onus to create these channels often falls on the leaders, the team at Unito writes.

Opening up the room to constructive criticism allows leaders to improve their management skills while giving employees the confidence to voice their opinions. If your employees are quiet at first, create an anonymous feedback channel for team members to offer ideas and advice for you to improve as a manager.  

Additionally, managers can also make it easier for employees to offer criticism by setting up regular check-ins where their team members feel comfortable.

“This regular time together creates the forum to build a rapport, discuss challenges, successes, get feedback on your performance and ensure that you are tracking toward your goals,” Julie Koepsell, digital marketing leader, says. “It creates a consistent and comfortable atmosphere for private conversations, like receiving and delivering feedback.”

This way, offering feedback doesn’t have to be an intimidating process. It can be discussed quickly for a few minutes during a check-in before moving on to another topic.  

2. Turn Off Alarm Bells and Tear Down Your Walls

Anna Wood, founder of Brains over Blonde, says it’s important for people to turn off the alarm bells in their brains telling them that they’re about to receive criticism. Some people immediately put up barriers or go into panic mode at the slightest idea that they’re not performing perfectly, meaning they miss out on ideas to become even better. Turning off your mental alarms will take time, but the more you practice receiving criticism, the easier it will be to hear good ideas.

Constructive criticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just that most people just tend to put it in a bad light.

For example, artist Gry Hege Rinaldo says that she has a strong inner critic. It can be hard to sort out what is objectively bad and what her inner voice tells her is bad. She turns to others for constructive criticism and advice for what to improve. These people offer a fresh perspective and want to see her succeed, which is why they offer their advice.

3. Ask Your Boss, Peers and Employees for Complete Honesty

You’re never going to learn if you stay in your bubble of positive feedback that’s criticism-free.

Aytekin Tank, founder of JotForm, has been there. At the first sign of negative feedback at his first job as as a junior developer he grew immediately defensive and upset. Since then, he has learned to accept feedback and encourages employees to seek it out — for better or for worse.

“Ask for straight, candid feedback,” he writes. “Even if it is delivered a little unskillfully (remember your boss is on a learning curve too); clarity and insight can only emerge from total honesty.”

4. Turn Your Feedback Session Into a Discussion

Constructive criticism isn’t meant to roast you. It is meant to help you. When you turn your feedback space into a discussion, you can better understand what people mean.

“If you don’t agree or don’t understand, ask questions,” Mikaela Parrick at The Startup writes. “Keep in mind that you are not looking for an argument, just a full explanation...Also, if the person did not offer a suggestion or solution, ask for one.”

5. Recognize That Both Parties Are Doing Their Best

Both giving and receiving feedback is hard. It’s only when all parties approach constructive criticism with good intentions that your company can use the information to move forward.

“The truth is, most bosses have no idea of the depth or extent of the negative impact their behavior might be having on you or the organization,” Scott Mautz, author of Find the Fire, writes. “I'm encouraging you to conduct an awareness campaign, and gently help them understand these realities.”  

You can even give them feedback on their feedback ability so that they can help you grow.

You won’t feel comfortable receiving feedback overnight and your team won’t become feedback experts in just a few days. Constructive criticism takes practice to give and receive, and it could be several months before you feel comfortable with both.

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