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Are you groaning and rolling your eyes at the sight of those two little words? I can’t blame you.
As much as we all love to tout our own desires to grow and improve, there’s no way around the fact that receiving constructive feedback is often cringe-worthy at best. And, being the one to offer it usually isn’t any easier.
But, here’s the thing:
Constructive criticism is one of those necessary evils in the workplace. It’s what pushes you to become a better employee, and what you rely on to get the best out of everybody around you.
However, constructive criticism is really only effective when it’s delivered politely and professionally, and getting it right resembles a tightrope walk.
Fortunately, we’re here to help. We’re diving into everything you need to know to dish out and take constructive criticism like a champ. And we've included some useful examples of constructive criticism so you can see it in action.
What makes constructive criticism so cringe-worthy?
First, we need to answer this question: Why do we all hate constructive criticism so much? We know it almost always leads to positive outcomes, so why does it still make us flinch?
Well, to put it simply, being on the receiving end of constructive criticism knocks our confidence down a few pegs. None of us like being reminded that we aren’t flawless at our jobs, and those negative pieces of feedback are what stick with us. In fact, psychology research shows that it takes five positive events to make up for just one negative event in our brains.
Even further, we tend to get so hyper-focused on that one perceived flaw (no matter how miniscule it might be!), that it overshadows nearly everything else.
A separate study showed that constructive criticism actually dulled the lessons that employees took away from their performance appraisals. It was as if they heard that one piece of harsh feedback and totally shut down.
You get it—receiving this type of criticism is challenging because it pokes holes in our ego. But, what about offering it? Why is that part so difficult?
Despite the fact that the very premise of constructive criticism involves investing your own energy into helping someone improve, there’s still plenty of potential for fallout. You could tarnish your own reputation by being perceived as bossy or condescending. Or, you could potentially damage your relationship with that person.
In fact, a study conducted by PsychTests found that 41% of respondents have actually gotten into an argument more than once with someone because they felt unjustly criticized.
So, with scary stats like that one, it’s no wonder that we’re all hesitant to give this oh-so-important feedback to the people we work with.
The do’s and don’ts of constructive criticism
Here’s the good news: Constructive criticism really is a good thing—it just needs to be delivered in the right way. How do you do that? We’re so glad you asked.
Do actually be constructive
What’s the key word in constructive criticism? Constructive. You shouldn’t just be pointing out a problem—you should be offering a potential solution. Neglecting to do so immediately makes your feedback seem mean-spirited.
Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong
Before you jump right in with your own ideas for how someone could improve, ask yourself: Am I the right person to be providing feedback on this situation? If it doesn’t directly involve you in any way, you’re best to stay out of it—or you’ll run the risk of seeming like a nosy meddler.
Do include something positive
The last thing you want is for your constructive criticism to seem like a personal attack. That’s why it’s often smart to start with something positive. It helps to cushion the blow and make it clear that you don’t think that person is bad at their entire job—there’s just something they could do to become even better.
Don’t sugarcoat your feedback
While you want to start with something good to avoid jumping right in with an accusation, it’s important that your point is still clear. You don’t want to end the conversation with that person feeling confused. So, be as specific as possible. When you can, provide examples to add extra clarity to your feedback.
Do emphasize results
You’re eager to make it clear that you aren’t just offering feedback for the sake of destroying that person’s confidence. There’s a real, meaningful result attached to your criticism. Make sure you emphasize that. Will their improvement in this area speed things up for your whole team? Eliminate errors? Streamline communication? Make sure you point to the positive effects you’ll all experience.
Don’t focus on more than one thing
When you’ve finally gotten your nerve up to provide a piece of criticism, it can be tempting to just use that opportunity to dump out everything you’ve ever wanted to say. Don’t do that! Focus on only one piece of feedback so that the recipient has a chance to process, respond, and ask questions. You shouldn’t overwhelm them with a bunch of feedback all at once—that instantly seems like an attack.
Do avoid generalizations
Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, and one of the ways we all tend to detach ourselves from negative feedback is by leaning on generalizations like, “Everybody has been saying…” or “The whole team has noticed…” But, using phrases like these only makes that person feel ganged up on. If you’re the one offering the criticism, then you need to be prepared to shoulder the burden and not group everybody else in with you.
Body language is another key part of delivering constructive criticism effectively. Check out our course all about body language to make sure your nonverbal cues aren’t betraying your message!
Examples of constructive criticism: 3 common scenarios
Ready to see these best practices in action?
Let’s take a look at three situations that require you to offer feedback to three different types of people and then break down what you should (and shouldn’t!) say.
Scenario #1: Providing constructive criticism to an employee
Perhaps one of the most common forms of feedback is a manager needing to offer a piece of constructive criticism to a direct report. This can happen in passing, or as part of a formal performance review.
The important thing to remember here is that you’re the one in the position of power—which means this situation is already intimidating for the person receiving the feedback.
Hearing that they’re falling short in a certain area will naturally make employees question their job security, so you need to be empathetic and encouraging while still getting your point across.
Do this by emphasizing that you’re on the same side here. You can even take a more supportive position by offering to help them correct their behavior.
The scenario: Your employee has a history of missing important deadlines. You need to remind them that they need to be on time with their deliverables, otherwise everything else gets thrown off track.
What you want to say: “I need you to get your stuff done on time. That’s a pretty basic expectation that you shouldn’t have any trouble fulfilling.”
What you should say instead: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been late with your sales reports the past two months. I know that things get busy, but I need to see you improve with your on-time delivery, because not getting that information by the deadline really throws the rest of the team off track. Is there anything I can do to help you better manage your workload and ensure that you don’t fall behind?”
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Scenario #2: Providing constructive criticism to a peer
This situation is common. But, it’s also a little more awkward. It’s easy to feel like it’s not your place to provide feedback to someone who’s at your same level—as if you’re overstepping. At the same time, you don’t want to be the tattletale who runs to your boss at every single wrinkle or roadblock.
Know that you absolutely can deliver constructive criticism to a colleague, provided you’re able to do so in a way that doesn’t come across as condescending or like you’re trying to step in for your manager.
To walk this fine line, take a friendly, more team-centered approach. You can even openly address the fact that it’s a little uncomfortable, so that the recipient knows you aren’t elevating your position above theirs.
The scenario: One of your co-workers continues to interrupt you in team meetings. Every time you begin to chime in, they immediately cut you off with their own ideas. You don’t even know if they’re aware that they’re doing it, so you decide to bring it up after a meeting.
What you want to say: “Maybe you haven’t noticed (although, I don’t know how you could miss it), but you always interrupt me in team meetings. Can you just let me speak before you jump right in with your own two cents?”
What you should say instead: “Hey, Lacy. This is a little uncomfortable, but I’ve noticed that you tend to interrupt me when I’m sharing my thoughts in team meetings. I know we’re all excited to jump in with our own ideas—and yours are always great! But, I’d really appreciate it if you could let me get my own thoughts out before you begin speaking.”
Scenario #3: Providing constructive criticism to a manager
Here we are—at the most anxiety-inducing scenario of them all. Managing up is always nerve-wracking. But, every now and then you need to advocate for yourself at work.
If your boss is working or communicating in a way that’s making your job way harder than it needs to be, you should be able to voice your opinion and point that out. In fact, any good boss will encourage it.
However, you can’t be accusatory here, because you’re the subordinate. Instead, this is a scenario where it’s especially important to emphasize results (remember that tip from above?) to illustrate to your boss that you’re trying to make things more streamlined for everyone.
The scenario: Your boss continues to touch base with you about important tasks and to-dos via instant messenger. But, because you use instant messages for less important communication, you find you easily lose track of those notes. You’d much rather have your boss drop those in an email, so you can make sure you actually take care of them and can easily refer back to them.
What you want to say: “Seriously, can you stop sending absolutely everything in Slack the moment you think of it? It’s impossible to keep track of, and it’s driving me crazy.”
What you should say instead: “Slack is great for me when you have urgent pings and for casual conversation. But, when it comes to important assignments and tasks, would you mind sending those to me in email instead? That way I can more easily keep track of them and make sure I actually get them done on time. I don’t want to drop the ball!”
What if someone offers you feedback?
Now you’re armed and ready to offer constructive criticism in a way that’s polite and professional. But, we all know that the real challenge is receiving feedback. It’s never fun to hear, even when it’s phrased in the best way possible.
Looking for some tips to take that feedback to heart—without flying off the handle? Look no further. Here are a few tips to receive constructive criticism in a positive way.
1. Assume good intentions
It’s easy to think of all sorts of malicious intentions when somebody gives you a piece of constructive criticism.
They just want to make you feel bad! They’re only trying to make you look awful in front of your boss! They’re giving their own ego a boost by putting you down!
Listen, I know that’s an easy trap to fall into. But, you’ll have a much easier time receiving constructive feedback if you step back, get some perspective, and see that this person is only trying to help you. They aren’t saying that you’re bad at what you do—they’re saying that you could be better.
They’re investing energy and attention into helping you improve. That’s a good thing, no matter how brutal it feels in the heat of the moment.
2. Don’t get defensive
Many of us bristle up at the first sight of constructive criticism—we want to argue and deny it vehemently.
However, it’s important to remember that you can be perceived in ways that are totally different than what you intended. And, often, other people’s feedback and perspective is valid.
Resist the urge to immediately defend yourself and do this person a courtesy by hearing them out. You might be surprised by what you learn about yourself in the process.
3. Instead, ask questions
Alright, so if you shouldn’t immediately provide a counter-argument, what should you do? Just smile and nod?
Rest assured that being receptive to feedback doesn’t mean you have to take it all at face value. You’re allowed to ask questions to get some clarity and ensure that you’re understanding things correctly.
Ask for specific examples. Or, ask for more details about how they think you could improve. Empower yourself with the information you need to actually take that feedback into consideration and make an appropriate change if necessary.
4. Be gracious
I know—it feels counterintuitive to thank someone for a piece of feedback that you really didn’t want to hear. But, remember, this person is taking the time to help you get better.
Even if you don’t necessarily agree with their criticism, their investment in your growth and improvement is deserving of a genuine and heartfelt, “Thank you.”
5. Follow up
The magic of constructive criticism isn’t just in receiving it—it’s in implementing it.
After someone has highlighted an area you could improve upon, take steps to actually make a change. Then, after some time has passed, take proactive steps to follow up with the person who offered the original feedback.
This gives you a chance to get their perspective on whether or not they’ve witnessed a positive change in that area, and if there’s anything else you could be doing to give yourself a boost.
Not skipping this final step (as so many people do!) not only ensures that you’re making the most of that constructive criticism, but also proves to those around you that you’re dedicated to being the best you can be in your career.
Become a master of constructive criticism
Constructive criticism can be brutal—whether you’re the one offering the feedback or receiving it. Fortunately, working to hone your skills in both of those areas will make these exchanges far less cringe-worthy.
So, let’s end this with some constructive criticism of our own: We all have room to work on the way we deliver and accept feedback. Use the tips and examples in this post as your guide, and you’re sure to handle both of those important and inevitable interactions like a pro.