How To Give Constructive Criticism

April 23, 2013

Criticism. No one loves getting criticism. We often look for feedback from those in authority over us, usually chasing positive affirmation. When the feedback comes and it’s critical, we can find ourselves wondering what we were looking for. Criticism is generally a commentary about how we can do something better. Some people appreciate it, but the implication is still that they must have somehow failed.

We all need criticism.

The reality is that all of us need to be critiqued and given feedback. We hate hearing that we made a mistake, but how else are we going to improve?  We need people in our lives to care enough about us to tell us where we need to improve. This is especially true of people who are over us in authority.

But this is where it can get messy. We’ve all seen bosses or leaders who make people feel terrible for making a mistake. Leaders like this demotivate their teams and tend to squash creativity and innovation.  Who wants to put themselves out there with a new idea if ridicule or a harsh shut down are the expected response?

Some of us have also had people over us who weren’t clear about expectations, and who over-affirmed positive qualities and stayed silent on negative ones. This creates a culture of co-dependency and an inflated view of your actual contributions to the team. Ultimately building a place where no one can function without forced handholding.

When you find yourself in the position to give constructive criticism, here are some practical ways you can talk to your team:  

1. Criticism must be constructive.

That word—“constructive”—is thrown around a lot in this context of feedback and criticism. What does it really mean?

It’s talking about intent. Are you tearing them down because they frustrated you? Or are you working to build them up, strengthen your team in the process, and push toward accomplishing the shared mission?  If you are going to correct someone, make sure the end goal is not just a venting session for you, but a positive opportunity for honesty, growth and improvement.  

2. Encourage more than you criticize.

Because you are in a position of authority, it is likely that the feedback you offer has a bigger effect on those who work for you than it does on you. The weight of criticism is heavy and rings more loudly in your employees’ ears than does encouragement. Does your encouragement outweigh your critique?

Do not leave them uncertain if they are competent. Motivate them more than they doubt themselves. Encourage more than you criticize. Be sure to reassure.

3. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t understate. Be clear and practical.

Vague generalizations about poor performance are entirely unhelpful, and will only discourage your team.

They need to know what exactly they need to work on, and how you think they could go about solving the problem. Give specific steps you want them to take, and even ask if they have any other ideas for how they could improve. True honesty creates great clarity.

4. Invite their opinion without compromising your own.

The whole point is to get better, and in order for that to happen, they’ll need to agree with your assessment, or at least clearly see what you’re talking about. They will not begin working on improving until they also think they need to improve.

You don’t have to compromise your opinion. Allow them to voice their honest thoughts, and then restate your own. Doing this will build a safe environment for your team. They will know they can be honest with you without fear of being shut down.

5. Don’t make a show of it. 

How would you feel if your boss criticized you in front of your peers?

Talk to them privately. If they resist, then bring in another opinion, but keep it quiet. Show them you respect their reputation.

6. Believe they can do what you’re asking them to do. 

If you honestly think they can’t improve, they’re going to sense that when you talk to them. Don’t fake it just to be liked and keep the peace. But if you assure them (and mean it) that they can do what you’re asking, they will be much more likely to do it.

As a leader, you’re probably very aware of the weaknesses in your team. If you take these extra steps to communicate respectfully with your team about their flaws, the payback will be big. It’s important to never work-around team members, but rather create a habit and culture of building each other up through good constructive feedback.