2 people speaking, denoting constructive criticism
5-second summary
  • Trying to be too nice when delivering feedback can confuse the receiver. A direct approach is best.
  • When delivering criticism, make sure you’re in the right frame of mind – otherwise, you’ll risk derailing the conversation and falling short of that constructive element.
  • Creating an environment of psychological safety can make it easier for people to take feedback without getting defensive.

How confident are you about delivering negative feedback? If you think your skills could use a boost, you’re not alone. Believe it or not, only 14.5% of managers strongly agree that they’re effective at delivering constructive criticism.  

Even with the best of intentions, conveying truthful criticism to a co-worker without discouraging them is an exercise in honesty and balance – a difficult but important skill to master. 

Don’t avoid constructive criticism

Research shows that avoiding confrontation can create even more emotional stress than if you had delivered the dificult feedback in the first place, according to researchers from the University of Sam Houston.

And that stress can ultimately lead to a toxic work environment. The same study notes that withholding feedback “can also lead to employee alienation and neglect … which often results in dramatic decreases in employee morale, productivity, and  performance. This neglect can further lead to stress, anxiety,  depression, and other forms of psychosomatic illness.”

The real reason your team won’t give you honest feedback

Since delivering constructive criticism is a key component to managing people, it’s worth your time to get better at it.

What is constructive criticism?  

Criticism that’s constructive offers a balanced critique of someone’s performance by acknowledging both the positive and negative aspects of their work, along with the appropriate steps to improve. Unlike purely negative criticism, which focuses only on what the person did wrong, a constructive feedback session is specific, encouraging, and actionable. 

Criticism: “You haven’t been managing your time at work and you’re always turning in assignments late.” 

Constructive criticism: “I’ve noticed that while your assignments are thorough, you’ve turned in the past five after the due date. For the next one, I’d like you to outline a plan with incremental due dates so you can deliver the final report on time.” 

It’s also important not to confuse constructive criticism with the “feedback sandwich” (positive-criticism-positive) approach, which can be interpreted as disingenuous by employees and may actually create a sense of distrust

Rather, constructive criticism directly addresses areas that need improvement in a tactful way. 

How to give constructive criticism more effectively in the workplace 

Do a gut check on your mindset first

You may give constructive criticism in a formal performance review or in casual conversation. But note that when offering in-the-moment criticism, it’s wise to take a pause and ask yourself if you’re in the right mindset to deliver that feedback constructively.

Dianna Booher, an executive communications coach and author of “Communicate with Confidence,” formulated a list of right and wrong reasons to give constructive criticism:

Wrong reasons:

  • To excuse your own behavior out of defensiveness 
  • You’re in a bad mood
  • To appease a third party
  • To look powerful 

Right reasons:

  • To demonstrate genuine concern 
  • To mentor your team 
  • To support your employees 
  • Because you feel a sense of responsibility 

If you find that you’re checking off any boxes in the first category (hey, we’re all human) you may want to defer feedback until a later time when you’re in a more positive mindset. 

Create a sense of psychological safety

Receiving negative feedback, no matter how well-intentioned, is never fun. However, people who feel psychologically safe are more likely to process constructive criticism in a productive way.

Joseph Grenny, author of “Crucial Conversations,” states that you can help create the right conditions by giving people time to prepare before you deliver your thoughts. You can do that by:

  • Checking your intentions, as described above.
  • Asking permission. Grenny explains in Harvard Business Review (HBR): “Control is central to safety. Never give feedback until it is invited. Offer it, but then wait until the other person feels ready to receive it. When you ask permission by saying something like, ‘Can I give you some feedback about your presentation?’ you recognize the fact that the other person is responsible to get herself into a healthy emotional state before the feedback arrives.”
  • Stating your intent for giving the feedback. According to Grenny, the feedback receiver may become defensive and assume that you have an ulterior motive for delivering constructive criticism – unless you orient them to your intentions first. So before sharing feedback, ensure that others understand your positive intentions. Grenny gives this example: “When you have a moment I’d like to discuss how the sales trip went. I want to be sure I’m doing my best for you on these trips and want to share ways it can work better for me as well. Can we talk?”

Be clear and respectful

Avoid the urge to sugarcoat. Not only does that “sandwich method” undermine trust, but it can also send a mixed message that leaves your team member without a clear idea of what they’re supposed to change.

In a recent article in HBR, leadership consultants Dane Jensen and Peggy Baumgartner laid out a simple, three-step approach on how to be direct and effective when giving constructive criticism in the workplace. 

  1. Directly describe the behavior that you would like to improve. “The research you cited didn’t meet the level we normally expect for this type of report.”
  2. Explain the impact of the behavior. “It’s important that our sources have the proper credentials so our customers know they can trust our recommendations.”
  3. Clearly spell out what you would like to change. “Next time, please ensure that any citations are from within the last five years and that any quoted sources have ‘expert’ standing in their fields.”

Stop wasting energy on being “nice.” Be direct and everyone benefits.

Learn more about how to give effective feedback in Why peer feedback should prioritize radical candor

Thanks for Jessica Pereira for her contributions to this post.

How to deliver effective constructive criticism