Constructive Criticism: How To Give It and Receive It Effectively

CoachHub · 20 September 2022 · 7 min read

What is constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism is the evaluation of one’s performance with the aim of highlighting areas of improvement. It is an honest assessment of an individual’s work that intends to positively impact the receiver and provide them with actionable points to develop their skills and abilities.

Constructive criticism is not:

  • An evaluation of one’s character or personality 
  • A critique without solutions
  • Offensive or belittling
  • Personal

Constructive criticism v deconstructive criticism

It is easy to see how receiving constructive criticism in the workplace can be confused with criticism. If dealt with poorly and with little empathy, employees can miss the message behind the feedback and feel personally attacked.

Constructive criticism focuses on helping the employee to learn and develop. The primary aim is to provide the employee with information that will help them to grow and improve their performance. Criticism is deconstructive when it does not offer any value to the employee. Much damage is done when feedback is given that offends an employee and highlights their weaknesses without offering ways to improve.

The question for management and leadership is, what impact will my feedback have on the employee? Will it motivate them to do better and work harder or will it build frustration and resentment?

The aim when giving constructive feedback is to improve performance, therefore, criticism must inspire positive growth for it to be constructive. The outcome of destructive criticism is the opposite. Morale and motivation are lowered and trust may be broken.

Constructive criticism examples:

  • “You haven’t been keeping me up-to-date with your tasks, let’s have a weekly catch-up to discuss your progress”
  • “I see you missed this deadline. I know you put a lot of effort into this project but please come to me in advance if you think you need more time”
  • “I would like to see a little more engagement with you in terms of team activities, you bring a lot to the team and you have an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to the team culture”
  • “I have noticed your last submission did not meet all of our requirements. I have made a checklist for you to review for your next deadline”

Destructive criticism examples:

  • “Don’t you know how to communicate? Your updates are not good enough, I need to know more”
  • “You missed this deadline, this is totally unprofessional”
  • “You are very disengaged on the team and I don’t like that you are not contributing to the team culture”
  • “Your last submission was not up to scratch. You did not fulfill the requirements, this should not happen again”
constructive criticism

What are the benefits of constructive criticism?

Improves performance

Constructive feedback is a valuable tool for growth and an essential contribution to learning new skills and developing one’s abilities. Francesca Gino, Ph.D. at Harvard Business School said “Feedback is key to personal growth and improvement, and it can fix problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient”. Providing constructive feedback saves the employee much time and energy and can be a huge driver of their growth.

Creates a culture of feedback

Having an open and honest flow of communication is healthy in any work environment. Being able to give and receive constructive criticism in the workplace can reduce the fear of criticism and increases employees’ ability to take direction.

People want feedback

It is challenging to offer criticism in a constructive way for fear of it not being received well. A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows, however, that it is largely underestimated how much people want to receive feedback. It may not always be a comfortable conversation but these findings indicate that employees will appreciate the honesty and use it to improve.

How to give constructive criticism

1. Environment

When giving constructive criticism in the workplace setting can be a deciding factor in how the feedback is received. Choose a quiet and private space that will enable the employee to feel at ease. Create a safe environment for an honest and effective conversation to take place. For example, a private meeting room that the employee is familiar with.

2. Be precise

Provide valuable insights into their performance. Give specific areas to improve with concrete examples. Avoid vague comments and subjective observations. SHRM advises “the richer and more nuanced the better”. For example, instead of saying “I didn’t like it when you did this…” say “the method you chose is less effective because…”.

3. Read the receiver

Pay close attention to how the feedback is being received. Look out for signs that the employee is beginning to get upset or offended and stop. Feedback will not be helpful or even heard if the receiver is closed off or emotional. No matter how well-delivered and well-intentioned the feedback is, it will not be effective. For example, if you notice signs of agitation, panic or overwhelm suggest a break or ask if the employee would like to share their perspective.

4. Offer solutions‍

Constructive feedback is never criticism without a solution. With each point of criticism, offer guidance as to how to improve it. A critique should be immediately followed by or entirely focused on a solution. Managers must place more attention on the path to fixing weaknesses than on the point of weakness itself. For example, follow each point with “this is how we will tackle this” or “in order to improve this we must look at” and “the simple way to improve this is”.

Tips on how to give constructive criticism

  • Setting a consistent time and place for giving feedback can help the employee to remain open and prepared for receiving a critique.
  • Be empathic to the feelings of the employee. Understand it can be challenging to receive criticism and make an effort to deliver it with a friendly spirit.
  • SHRM suggests offering written feedback for the employee to review before your discussion. This can lead to better specificity and more thorough critiques. “Putting it on paper helps me validate the soundness of my thinking”.
  • Focus on specific actions or behaviors over personal qualities or tendencies. Keep it professional, never personal.
  • Offer feedback within an appropriate window of time. Feedback is more effective when events are recent and still fresh.

How to receive constructive criticism

1. Listen

When receiving constructive criticism one should actively listen to whoever is offering feedback. Do not interrupt and pay attention to what they are saying. They want to help you and are putting themselves in an uncomfortable position for the sake of your growth. Allow them to finish their points before you offer a response and be respectful of their efforts to provide constructive feedback.

2. Be open

It takes strength and courage to take criticism well. Display body language that states you are open to their feedback and willing to take direction. Take notes to communicate that you are receiving the information and have not closed off to their suggestions. Showing you are engaged and taking their points seriously will show you are coachable and motivated to grow.

3. Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or for specific examples. If feedback is unclear ask questions to make sure you understand what is being communicated. You can always ask for feedback in a specific area that is most helpful to you. Questions at the end of a feedback session are also vital to ensure you leave with a concrete plan to improve.

4. Give thanks

Feedback is hard to give. Thank whoever is giving your feedback for their honesty and input. There is a lot of value in feedback and it can really contribute to your growth. Bill Gates said “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” A follow-up to express appreciation and provide an update on how their feedback helped can be a huge statement of your openness and willingness to learn.

Tips on how to handle criticism:

  • Have a positive outlook. There is something you can take away from the discussion to improve and grow, no matter how painful it is to hear. Ensure you understand how the feedback can help you perform better.

“If you reject feedback, you also reject the choice of acting in a way that may bring you abundant success” John Mattone.

  • Align the feedback with a larger objective. Ask, how can I use this information to reach my goals?
  • Don’t take feedback personally. It is intended to help you professionally and does not indicate failure.
  • Aim to have acalm and respectful conversation. Make an effort to have a relaxed demeanor, speaking slowly and kindly.
  • Avoid defensiveness or anger. Engaging in a debate can be very damaging. Try to remain neutral. Seek not to argue against their points but to understand their perspective.
  • Do not resent the speaker. Ask yourself, if roles were reversed, how would I want to be received?

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In conclusion

Whether you are giving or receiving constructive criticism, remember that aim is to inspire growth. Offer valuable insights with a genuine interest in the employee’s growth and development. Once you communicate a solution and express a good intention your feedback will be constructive. When receiving criticism look for the lesson in it all. It may be painful but it will ultimately serve you professionally. Openness to criticism is a great statement of your commitment to growth. Lastly, take some time to reflect after giving and receiving feedback. How could you improve your delivery of criticism? How can you improve your performance? With a little empathy and a strong desire to learn, criticism does not have to sting!

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Cathy Stapleton
Cathy is an Irish writer based in Berlin, Germany who is passionate about using words to inspire growth. As a certified mindfulness facilitator and performance coach, Cathy aims to create work that helps people connect with themselves and heighten their awareness. When she is not writing she is usually running in nature, meditating or contemplating an existential crisis.

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