Understanding Constructive Criticism
Constructive criticism is a way of providing feedback. It gives recommendations on how to make improvements to your performance. Constructive criticism should be straightforward and easy to implement.
In the workplace, constructive criticism should be provided to support your career goals.
When done correctly, constructive criticism:
- Improves trust between employees and managers
- Creates a better understanding of employer expectations
- Can decrease employee turnover by 14.9%
- Positively impacts an employee’s behavior
Yet, the word 'criticism' is generally perceived as being negative. As a result, there can be misunderstandings about the content of upcoming conversations thought to be about criticism.
A more favorable term would be 'constructive feedback'.
This phrase suggests that the conversation is going to be more upbeat and positive.
Regardless of the terminology, the delivery and outcome of the feedback should be the same.
Whether you are a manager or employee, you need to know how to give constructive feedback properly to avoid any miscommunication.
Follow these tips:
Always provide feedback in private. Publicly discussing someone's performance will put them under unnecessary pressure and make them feel singled out. Performance reviews should always be completed behind closed doors so there is the time and space to have a discussion.
Make it a two-way conversation. The whole concept behind constructive criticism is that the receiver understands their strengths and weaknesses and has a clear idea on how to improve. Reading out a long list of faults does nothing but demotivate. Both the employee and manager need to have a dialogue about what can be improved and the best way to do it.
Be specific. Constructive criticism needs to be specific and to the point. Rather than just saying their communication skills need improving, try to say what particular element of communication they struggle with, such as conciseness, and on what occasion you witnessed any issues.
Add in some positive comments. Constructive criticism is better received when sandwiched between positive feedback. Using the example above, you could say that they have a lovely telephone voice, which makes people feel comfortable. But the way they deliver the information needs to be more concise. That being said, you are incredibly impressed with their commitment to providing all the relevant information.
Suggest actionable improvement steps. Feedback is supposed to benefit both the employee and employer. For it to be helpful, the receiver needs to have actionable steps that they can take that also line up with their goals. For example, if their goal is to become a team leader, the actionable improvement steps should facilitate that.
Depending on the company’s employee development program, that could look like shadowing another team leader for the day or participating in a workshop. Try to have improvements steps that follow the SMART principle – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound.
Avoid assumptions. Only provide feedback on what you see and hear. Do not assume that the person is lazy or slow, or whatever the assumption may be. Simply state that you have observed that, for example, they are slower at completing their work compared to the rest of the team. Then follow up with “Do you feel this is accurate, and could there be any reasons for it?”. That person may not understand their role properly or be having problems at home. We all come from different backgrounds and cultures. Assuming someone is a certain way before having a conversation with them can cause hostile environments.
Do not get personal. Focus on the actions, not the person or their personality. If their desk is unorganized and below company standards, say that. Do not call them messy or disorganized, as insulting someone is no way to get them to listen to you. It is a similar concept to not making assumptions. Just because a person is a certain way at work, it does not always mean they are the same at home.
Ask for their thoughts. Constructive criticism is a two-way conversation. Throughout the discussion, ask the receiver:
- If they understand what is being said
- If they agree with it
- What actionable steps they would like to take
- What they would like to see from you, the person giving the feedback
- If there is anything else they wish to discuss
Opening up the conversation creates trust and allows the employee to feel supported and respected. In turn, this improves their performance and motivation.
When someone criticizes or passes judgment on something you have done, it is very easy to react. But feedback is essential for growth and development.
The next time you receive constructive criticism or feedback, try the following:
It is easy to get distracted when you hear something you do not like.
It is even easier to lose concentration and focus only on those negative words when you are in a stressful situation like a performance review.
Try and not get consumed by the words you do not like, and listen closely to everything that is being said.
Make notes on anything you want to discuss further, and do not interrupt until your manager has finished speaking.
After your manager has finished, confirm you understand by paraphrasing what they said.
“What I believe you are saying is that you like how much knowledge and understanding I have, that I want to provide all the information to the client, and that I have a lovely telephone voice. However, you would prefer it if I were a little more concise as to not overwhelm the client?”
If you have any questions, ask them at this stage.
You are both then free to discuss your actionable improvement steps in a calm and understanding environment.
You should also consider that the person delivering your feedback may also be nervous or uncomfortable.
Clarifying what they have said lets them know that they have delivered the information correctly and allows them to correct if they have not.
Everyone has a different personality. When someone notices one of your mistakes or problem behaviors, you may sometimes get embarrassed, ashamed or feel guilty.
For some, a natural reaction is to become defensive; particularly if you consider yourself a perfectionist or an expert in your role.
In these situations, you need to remember that the feedback is designed to help you.
If your manager raises an issue that was not your fault, calmly tell them the facts of the situation after you have shown you understand what has been said.
“I understand that the work needed completing by 3 p.m. and I failed to make those deadlines; however, on those occasions I was waiting on work from another colleague. They failed to meet their deadline, which caused me to miss mine."
Interrupting and becoming angry or argumentative will solve nothing.
Feedback is based on observations. You cannot argue with what they see, but you can explain yourself.
Again, if something genuinely was not your fault, let your manager know. Otherwise, take ownership of your mistakes.
Showing a willingness to listen and grow tells employers that you are a mature and valuable employee and worth investing in. No employer wants to employ someone difficult.
You do not need to give your manager a long list of reasons why you fall short. You just need to understand what has been discussed, accept it, then work on it.
But you have to mean it.
Your manager has spent a lot of time preparing your feedback and actionable steps. Once the session is over, look them in the eyes and express your appreciation and gratitude for their time and guidance.
If you and your manager have agreed on improvement steps, make sure you take them.
Not only does this show your employer that you are worth the development, but it also shows your manager that you value them and their input.
Many employees do not take their feedback seriously, which can be infuriating for managers that have made the time to help develop those people’s careers.
Discuss the improvement steps with your manager to make sure they follow the SMART principle:
Schedule a follow-up meeting so you have a deadline to assess if you are taking the correct actions. When your manager sees that you are making an active effort, they will also take more of an interest.
These examples will give both bad and good examples of how a manager can deliver and an employee can respond to a certain piece of feedback.
In the bad examples, there is usually no respect for one another and no two-way conversation, with the manager being demanding and the employee being defensive.
In good examples, the manager talks about the positives they have noticed as well as negatives and allows the employee space to explain.
The employee, in turn, trusts that their manager wants them to improve and will be able to explain the situation without getting defensive while acknowledging areas they need help in.
“I need you to get things done on time. I don’t want to hear any of your excuses, I just need this done. I don’t even want to think how unorganized you are in your personal life if this is how you are at work.”
“Yes, well, if everyone else on my team wasn’t so useless and I had better resources, maybe I would get things done on time.”
“The work you do is to a very high standard but I’ve noticed that recently you have missed a few deadlines. I understand that this is a fast-paced environment. There are a couple of time-management strategies we can try. But before we discuss them, is there anything you know of that is causing these delays?”
“Thank you for noticing the quality of my work. There have been some occasions where I have missed a deadline because I am waiting for a colleague to finish their section. But mostly, I do struggle with time management because I like things to be done perfectly. I’d love to hear your suggestions on improving.”
“You have fallen short on two targets this year. Do what you need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Any more failures and we’ll need to consider if this is really the job for you.”
“Maybe if the targets weren’t so unrealistic and you didn’t treat us like slaves, we might actually all perform better.”
“Your work on the first three targets of the year was solid. However, I did notice that you didn’t quite manage the last two. I can see that you do work really hard and you have high targets. Unless you can think of something else, maybe we should rethink your targets for next year?”
“I did find the final part of this year quite challenging. I have to admit I was a bit distracted due to personal reasons. Would it be possible to stick with my original targets, and after the first quarter have another review?”
“I’ve noticed lately that you have been causing an unpleasant environment. You are making things very difficult for me and your colleagues. Should this continue, we will have no choice but to take disciplinary action.”
“You’re the one making things unpleasant. I just want to be left alone to do my own thing without any of you lot butting in.”
“I’m glad we’ve managed to find time to sit down together. I, and some of your colleagues, have noticed that you don’t seem happy at work lately. Has something happened that you would like to talk about?”
“Thank you for noticing and not jumping to conclusions. Honestly, I have been feeling so stressed lately – a lot is going on at home, and the workload has increased here. I just don’t know where to begin solving anything. I’m sorry for making the work environment unpleasant.”
Constructive criticism is difficult for both people involved. The giver does not know how their feedback is going to be received, and the receiver does not know what to expect or how they are going to react.
When receiving feedback, remember that it is designed to benefit both you and your employer. It is not for your manager to list all the things they do not like about you.
If you feel that you are not receiving effective constructive criticism, then you should discuss the matter with your manager and a member of HR.
For all future constructive criticism, remember:
- The purpose of the feedback
- To listen carefully
- Try to fully understand what has been said
- Create actionable improvement steps
- Follow through with your steps