Giving constructive criticism is never easy, but it’s necessary for a business to improve its processes, customer satisfaction, productivity, and profits.
If you shy away from giving feedback, seeing it as confrontational, take hope. Try seeing constructive criticism as a teaching opportunity instead of a confrontation: It will become an opportunity where you can help members of your team develop professionally and grow their skills.
Still, delivering constructive criticism well is definitely a balancing act. It requires emotional intelligence and high-level communication skills. Here’s how to do it successfully.
Be scientific in your approach
In her TED Talk, cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renniger, who is the cofounder and director of training at LifeLabs Learning, shares a scientifically proven method for giving effective feedback. The problem is that people don’t give feedback in a way that is “brain-friendly.” They either are indirect in an attempt not to be hurtful or they are too direct, causing offense. The first approach doesn’t allow the brain to realize criticism is being offered and the second tips the person into being defensive.
Renniger says her research has found there’s a formula you can use to say any difficult message well. For example, she advises that you begin with a question like “I have some ideas for how we can improve things. Can I share them with you?” This micro-yes part of the formula is a “pacing tool,” Renniger explains. It lets the brain know that feedback is coming, and it creates a moment of buy-in.
The nitty-gritty bits
While words and delivery matter, so does the timing.
First of all, don’t blindside a worker with an impromptu hallway meeting. Do schedule a 1:1, and make it timely, as soon after the completion of the task or project as possible. Then, in the meeting, speak to one or two issues only, and give very specific, actionable advice as to how they can improve. Also, tell them why you are offering feedback in that area; for example, it might streamline internal communication or improve client satisfaction.
The team at employee engagement platform Macorva suggests coaching as a method of giving constructive criticism. An example of how to do this is to ask employees open-ended questions to get them thinking about possible solutions. You can offer support without suggesting a “one right way” solution, and together you can develop an action plan that addresses specific issues that might arise over time.
It’s better to have frequent meetings than otherwise. Andy Bailey, founder and CEO of management consultancy Petra Coach, prefers bi-weekly reviews to annual evaluations. He says they allow team members to improve throughout the year. If you ask the employee to do a mini self-assessment at the same time, Bailey says “a meaningful discussion is sure to develop—especially around those benchmark scores that differ greatly.”
Read more:How to Have an Effective 1:1
Let employees lead improvement
Remember too that employees respond uniquely to constructive criticism, so one approach does not necessarily fit all. However, in your approach, says leadership coach Bernd Geropp, you should always show appreciation for that employee’s work. If you don’t, you risk destroying their confidence.
Taking that further, he says that if you threaten consequences without offering help, you’re leading with fear. And because you’ve made that person afraid, they won’t ask for help. His advice is to be respectful but make a clear statement, otherwise the employee will be confused by what you’re trying to say. He gives this example:
I appreciate your high level of expertise and quality work; however, on average you need twice as long as your colleagues to complete a job. Let’s talk about what you need from me so you can do the work in the same time as your colleagues. How can I help you?
How do you give constructive criticism to your boss or peers?
It’s much easier to provide feedback when requested by your boss, but sometimes it becomes necessary whether or not they’ve asked. Criticism about their management style can be nearly impossible to talk about successfully; if you can, try to stick to a business process you think might be improved. Support your idea with facts. Don’t accuse, confront, or speculate. Be specific, with examples, and offer solutions if you have any.
If you want to give a peer constructive criticism, ask first. You’re not their boss. Keep it private too; it’s fine to praise them in public for a job well done, but negative feedback must be made in a 1:1 meeting.
Don’t back down: Peer-to-peer feedback is extremely useful. That’s because “coworkers interact and collaborate on a daily basis,” writes Jason Patel, founder of college counseling and career consulting company Transizion. In most cases, you have a clearer view of your coworker’s strengths and weaknesses (and vice versa) than a manager or executive. Managers and executives often see only the output. You and your peers see everything that goes into creating it.”
If you focus on the problem and not the person, you’ll give constructive criticism that is effective and, more importantly, accepted.