How to give and receive constructive criticism at work

January 22, 2021 - 16 min read
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What is constructive criticism?

How is constructive criticism different from destructive criticism?

How to give the gift of positive feedback in 5 easy steps

5 tips to avoid when giving constructive criticism

How to receive constructive criticism

5 things to avoid when receiving constructive criticism

Do your recommendations and suggestions sometimes get ignored by your employees?

Do you often feel misunderstood by your co-workers when giving them feedback?

Have you ever tried to question something constructively, but held back from doing so because you didn't know how to effectively express your ideas? 

Let’s face it--it can be hard to give or receive a tough message in a constructive way. However, getting comfortable with offering and receiving effective constructive criticism is vital to our success and that of our teams and fundamental to our professional growth and development. When presented correctly, it can be a helpful tool for leaders and peers to help each other deliver better results, find motivation and strengthen relationships.

So how can you learn to take criticism well and get better at delivering it to others? In this article, we will discuss the art of constructive criticism - what it is, how it varies from destructive criticism, effective strategies to give and receive it well, and what to avoid in both cases. 

What is constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism is a valuable method of giving feedback that offers specific, actionable recommendations. Good constructive feedback is priceless. Think of it as a gift to the recipient. It facilitates positive outcomes and creates a positive working environment. It also provides recipients with a safe space where they can feel secure enough to ask questions, seek help, offer feedback and ideas, and have a clearer understanding of how to fulfil and even exceed the standards expected of them.

How is constructive criticism different from destructive criticism?

The difference between constructive and destructive criticism lies in the manner in which the comments are delivered.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines criticism as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes”. Most people will perceive this definition as negative in itself, and when this element is concentrated on, it often results in the delivery of destructive criticism.

Destructive criticism - focuses solely on the problem as perceived by the person giving the criticism; offers no encouragement, help or support for improvement; tends to bring someone down and makes them feel bad about themselves, whether in a deliberate manner or not

How do you express something negative in a positive light? The key to success is to make your feedback sound encouraging and to focus on using the additional word "constructive" to turn the delivery of criticism into a positive practise.  Constructive criticism is defined as “criticism that is performed with a compassionate attitude towards the person qualified for the criticism”.

Constructive criticism - focuses on building up the other person; is clear, direct, honest, and easy to put into action; provides specific examples and actionable suggestions for positive change; highlights ways in which the recipient can make positive improvements in their behavior in order to minimise future problems.

Learning how to deliver constructive criticism well is essential for helping employees improve and increasing the overall growth in your workplace. Plus, if you become known as someone who can be trusted to give constructive criticism, colleagues will seek you out, people will want to work with you, and your influence will grow. Here are 5 useful strategies to implement constructive criticism at work.

How to give the gift of positive feedback in 5 easy steps

1. Positive - Start by focusing on the recipient’s strengths and highlight what you like about what they have done.

Example: “I really liked the depth of content you covered in your presentation.”

Improvement - Provide the criticism by focusing on what they need to improve on.

Example: “However you can improve the design and color palette of your slides. The ones you used were a bit hard to process and didn’t do justice to your content.”

Positive - Finally, round off the feedback with an encouraging comment that reiterates the positive comment you gave at the start. Also highlight the positive results that can be expected if the criticism is acted upon. This helps to build trust and confidence in the recipient.
Example: “Having said that, I really like the overall flow and feel of it. With a few tweaks in the areas I’ve mentioned, I think you have a winner. Please reach out to the design team for some tips and they will help you to take things to the next level. I’m excited to see the end product!”

2. Offer a 'Feedback Sandwich'
This is a popular method of giving constructive criticism and is often used in Toastmasters and in the corporate environment. It is called the “feedback sandwich” because you wedge your criticism between an opening and an ending (like a burger wedged between two buns) using the PIP analogy which stands for Positive-Improvement-Positive.
With PIP, your feedback can be broken down into 3 segments as follows:

Example:“I loved your idea of creating a new advertising plan for our IT training programme. However, I think that the outline of the initiative could be more detailed in explaining exactly what is on offer and how it will assist individuals in our organisation in their everyday work activities.”

Focus on the situation, not the person
Good constructive criticism should never be about what the other person is, or what they believe, but what they have done.  It should also focus on the behavior that you want to see more of, rather than the behavior that you observed and did not like.

Bonus Tip: Use the "l" language technique as a way of opening up communication more effectively and eliminating the chances of miscommunication. Using phrases such as "I think, "I feel" and "I suggest" helps the individual receiving the feedback to understand that the criticism is about the situation or behavior and not about them as a person. It also confirms your point of view, and lets the recipient know how you see the situation. This will make it easier for the other individual to separate the criticism from himself and understand things from your point of view.

3. Be specific with your feedback
The more specific and detailed your feedback is, the more actionable it will be. Do not make vague, blanket statements--instead list out objections or behavior changes you want to see in detail.  This makes it easier for the other person to address and change things.
Here is an example of vague vs. specific feedback:

Vague Criticism “Hi Julie, I wish you would start writing some articles on marketing.”

Specific Criticism: “Hi Julie, I would love for you to write a marketing article on how to identify and communicate with your target audience. Please let me know when you start and if you need any further suggestions.”

The vague comment is very broad and confusing because marketing is a very general topic. In contrast, the specific comment provides clarity and makes the task more actionable because it is so precise. Using this approach will encourage your workers to better understand their work demands rather than feel uncertain or anxious about what and how the job needs to be done.

Bonus Tip: Here’s how you can make your feedback specific and more actionable:

Focus more on objective points rather than subjective opinions.  Rather than saying “I don’t like it”, state the specific things you do not like (e.g., the purple lettering on yellow background made my eyes hurt).

Break your feedback down into key points or themes for better clarity before sharing it point by point. Don’t give your feedback in one big chunk. 

Give specific examples for each feedback point. Point out 1 or 2 exact situations where the person has displayed the behaviors that you want them to change. This helps to (a) illustrate what you mean and (b) raise the person’s awareness to patterns of behavior that he / she may be oblivious about.

4. Give recommendations on how to improve
The key reason for giving feedback is to help the person improve--remember, good feedback is a gift! Giving recommendations on what the person can do to improve will (a) allow them to better understand you and your expectations, (b) give them a clear picture of what you have in mind and (c) provide a powerful call to action. It will also help them act on what you have discussed, rather than procrastinate.

Bonus Tip: It is also important to be specific with your recommendations and briefly explain the rationale behind your suggestions.

Example: Giving feedback on a presentation

Weak recommendation: “The presentation is too long. Make it shorter.”

Good recommendation:"The presentation can easily be reduced from 30 minutes to 20 minutes if you limit 1 example to each point. This will make it more concise and impactful. At the moment you have 2- 3 examples per point which detracts from the main message.” 

The first recommendation is not very helpful because it is possible to reduce the presentation time in several ways (i.e., reducing the number of points, removing examples, talking faster, etc). The second point is better because it is very specific and demonstrates your point of view to the person by explaining your rationale.

5. Avoid making assumptions
Give recommendations only when you know the facts about that specific topic or person. Do not just jump to conclusions or have a presumptuous attitude - observe instead. Wrong assumptions not only put a person into a negative light, but also makes you look bad and can cause a great deal of trouble and distress in the workplace.

Here is an example to highlight the difference between an assumption and a critique: Feedback on a workshop presentation

Criticism: “The presenter was a bit hesitant and the session didn't really flow.”

Assumption: “The presenter doesn’t have any workshop experience.”

This assumption is not necessarily true. Experienced presenters can be nervous when facilitating workshops, especially when presenting in a new environment and to a new audience.

To assume that someone is inexperienced just because they appear slightly hesitant comes across as pompous. The recipient of that feedback would likely discount any criticism that followed even if it was accurate.

5 tips to avoid when giving constructive criticism

  1. Do not criticize who the other person is, or what they believe. Focus on observable actions or behaviors rather than identity, personality, or motivations.
  2. Do not store up issues and drag up old events long after they have happened. Feedback is more effective when given promptly and while the events are still fresh in everyone’s minds.
  3. Do not give feedback when you or the other person is angry. Wait until you are calmer as this will enable you to keep the conversation constructive .
  4. Do not give feedback when the person is not in a position to hear potentially unpleasant news (i.e., tired, upset, etc). It is important to give feedback at a time when the other person is ready to hear it.
  5. Do not complain about your colleagues behind their back. It makes it harder to give objective feedback that the recipient can hear and trust. 

How to receive constructive criticism

When the tables are turned and you're the one on the receiving end of criticism, how do you cope with the situation? Do you know how to accept the feedback and back off the defensive? If you get defensive,  your colleagues are less likely to offer feedback in the future. In this case, no news is not good news. Receiving criticism from a co-worker, a colleague, or someone you don't fully respect can be challenging. However, it is important to remember: accurate and constructive feedback also comes from flawed sources.

Here is a 6-step process on how to receive criticism with tact and grace:

  1. Stop your first reaction. Stay calm and try not to react at all. Maintain a calm demeanour.
  2. Remember the benefits of getting feedback and try to understand the motivation and perception of your criticizer. E.g., Improving your skills and relationships; helping you to meet the expectation others have of you.
  3. Be a good listener. Listen closely and focus on understanding the other person’s comments and perspective.
  4. Say thank you. You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but expressing gratitude demonstrates that you recognise the efforts of your colleagues who are working towards your improvement.
  5. Ask questions to deconstruct the feedback and share your perspective. Get more clarity by asking for specific examples, acknowledging the non-disputable part of the feedback, and asking for concrete solutions.
  6. Request time to follow up. If it’s a larger issue, ask for a follow-up meeting to ask more questions and get agreement on next steps.  This will give you time to process the feedback, seek advice from others and think about solutions.

Bonus Tip: Articulate what you will do going forward and thank the person again for the feedback.

5 things to avoid when receiving constructive criticism

Receiving thoughtful, actionable feedback at work is unfortunately a rare occurance. If you're lucky enough to be on the recieving end of constructive criticism, don't throw it away. Insight from a trusted, objective source about your work, work style, or how you're showing up is priceless. You want to keep it coming, and that means not reacting in a way that scares the giver off or makes them less willing ot give you feedback in the future.

To keep feedback coming, avoid these 5 reactions:

  1. Do not react with defensiveness and anger
  2. Do not attack the person giving the feedback
  3. Do not interrupt or talk over the person when they are giving the feedback
  4. Avoid analysing or questioning the person’s assessment initially
  5. Avoid engaging in a debate or a combative response


Remember, it’s not easy to give or receive feedback, but we hope that this article has equipped you with the tools to feel more positive in your ability to do this well.high-performing-teams-cta

Published January 22, 2021

Maureen Obatomi

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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