A Manager’s Guide to Providing Constructive Criticism in the Workplace

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Constructive criticism in the workplace can help employees understand what they are doing well and what they need help with. Benefits include professional development, clarified expectations, stronger working relationships and overall organizational growth.

Workers understand the value of constructive criticism — and they even prefer it to praise and congratulatory comments. By a three to one margin, respondents in a Harvard Business Review study believe that constructive criticism does more to improve their performance than positive feedback. More respondents (57 percent) prefer receiving constructive criticism over positive feedback (43 percent).

A graph depicting a Harvard Business Review study.

Source: adapted from Harvard Business Review

Despite the benefits of and desire to receive constructive criticism in the workplace, the study revealed that managers and leaders strongly dislike giving this type of feedback. The following tips can make this process as simple and effective as possible.

7 Tips for Giving Constructive Criticism

Avoid Surprises

A meeting without notice can cause employees to feel intimidated and catch them off-guard when you provide feedback. Schedule a meeting and explain what you want to talk about. This will give the employee some notice and time to prepare.

Keep It Private

Don’t provide individual feedback in a group setting. Giving constructive criticism in the workplace should be done privately, so that the employee doesn’t feel singled out and you have the time to work through the feedback. Public and rushed displays of feedback blur the line and can lead to destructive criticism.

Be Specific

Clear and specific feedback is critical. Get to the point quickly to avoid confusing the employee. Illustrate problematic behaviors and actions so the employee has a good idea of what you are bringing up.

Don’t Make It Personal

Focus on actions, not the person,” Charlie Harary says in Entrepreneur. You should be focusing on what the employee is doing and how to improve, not the employee’s personality. For instance, there is a difference between calling an employee disorganized and pointing out how the employee isn’t as structured as needed. The former makes an assumption about the person.

Don’t Forget the Positive

When it is relevant to your feedback, you should include positive aspects of the employee’s performance. By highlighting an employee’s strengths, you can help the worker understand what he or she is doing well while pointing out areas of improvement. All of this forms a cohesive unit of feedback for a specific topic.

Beware of including positive feedback for the sake of keeping things positive. Positive feedback can help the employee become more receptive to constructive criticism, but it should not be the reason why you offer compliments and praise. It’s similar to the rationale behind avoiding the “compliment sandwich” —  or sandwiching negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. These strategies are an insincere way of discussing feedback with an employee.

Provide Ideas for Improvement

Provide examples of the employee’s behavior and how the person could have handled the situation.

“When it comes to helping an employee improve his or her performance, explaining to the employee what he or she did wrong is only half of the equation,” according to the New York City Bar Association. “It is crucial for the manager to be prepared with concrete examples of how the employee could have handled past problems better, as well as solutions for how the employee can deal with similar situations in the future.”

Make It a Conversation

Giving constructive criticism in the workplace is an opportunity to coach and guide an employee. If an employee is going to understand what you have to say and how he or she can improve, it needs to be a dialogue. The employee should be able to explain his or her side of the story and ask questions about how to improve. Sometimes you’ll learn something that will help you tailor your feedback and advice to the employee.

Helping Employees Develop

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