How to Give Constructive Criticism and Why It Matters

Avoiding it will only stifle your employees’ growth.

Written by Brian Nordli
How to Give Constructive Criticism and Why It Matters
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Apr 29, 2024

Providing constructive criticism is one of the most important duties and soft skills a manager can have. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. Many people assume constructive criticism is entirely negative, that it involves confrontation or correcting someone’s behavior. As a result, managers tend to be overly critical — or avoid giving constructive criticism altogether. But with the right approach, constructive criticism can be a positive tool that leaders can wield effectively.

Constructive Criticism Definition

Constructive criticism is feedback that is meant to highlight areas of improvement in a helpful manner. To be effective, constructive criticism should include specific examples of the behavior the critic wants to highlight, the consequences of that behavior and concrete steps the feedback receiver can take to correct the behavior and raise their performance.

What Is Constructive Criticism?

Constructive criticism is the process of providing critical feedback to an employee with the intention of helping them grow and develop. It can be used to correct an issue impacting an employee’s performance or as a form of support to help an employee take the next step in their career. In both cases, it’s a valuable tool for building a supportive, growth-focused culture.

Constructive criticism is different from destructive criticism, which is advice that is meant to hurt someone or inconsiderate of a person’s feelings and potential reaction to criticism. Giving bad feedback — criticism that isn’t specific or thoughtful — can also tear an employee down and leave them doubting their abilities, potentially causing them to make more mistakes in the future.  

For a positive change to take place, employees must buy into the feedback, according to Shonna Waters, VP of strategic alliance for BetterUp. That requires understanding their side of the experience, adjusting your input and coming to a joint conclusion.

“You’re going into this feedback [session] because you have a perspective on what this person can do to be more effective,” Waters said. “But leave open the possibility that there are other things that you can’t see going on in the situation. [You have to] really want to understand the other person’s perspective and make sure they’re bought into the feedback.” 

 

How to Give Constructive Criticism

Getting to a point where you can offer constructive criticism is a detailed process that requires patience and persistence. Follow these steps to cultivate a workplace culture where constructive criticism is welcome.
 

1. Ask Employees How They Prefer to Receive Feedback

If you want to build a culture where feedback can flow honestly between employees and managers, sit down with each employee on your team and understand how they prefer to receive constructive criticism. Ask your reports what medium they prefer to have feedback conversations over and how much time they need to prepare for a feedback session. This will help you establish ground rules when you do need to give feedback, said Thalida Noel, CTO of the rental platform Tourus

If an employee doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe their preferred work style or how they like to get feedback, Lexi Butler — founder of Sista Circle, a community for Black women in tech — recommends having them describe a manager they really enjoyed working with and what they did, and then a manager they didn’t enjoy working with and why. 

“It’s very rare for people to be able to do their own inner work to say, ‘I like to get feedback this way.’ It’s very easy when you ask somebody, ‘What happened at your last job and manager you worked with? Why were they horrible?’” Butler said. “People will have lists for days, and when they give me that answer, I really start taking notes.”  

 

2. Create Space for Feedback 

You will also want your employees to feel comfortable coming to you for feedback. Most organizations don’t spend enough time building a culture where employees can ask for advice, according to Lisa Steelman, an industrial organizational psychologist and professor at the Florida Institute of Technology. 

Keeping your door open (or your Slack status as available), encouraging employees to ask for feedback and asking for feedback yourself are all great ways to create that environment.

 

3. Deliver Positive Feedback More Frequently

If all you do is give your employee negative feedback, it’ll deflate their ego and lead them to mistrust you. You need specific, positive feedback to build up your goodwill savings.

“You’ve got to be making these deposits that feel good and are building the trust in the relationship to have it work when you have a tough conversation,” Waters said. 

Joanna Li, a professional development coach at home services software Jobber, suggests adhering to a praise-to-criticism ratio of five positive feedback messages for every one negative criticism. For this to be effective, the praise shouldn’t be lumped together in an attempt to cushion the blow of the criticism. It needs to be doled out in natural moments after an employee exhibits exemplary behavior or shows growth. Creating a log of feedback you give an employee can help you keep track of your ratio and ensure you’re providing more positive than negative feedback. 

 

4. Document and Prepare Feedback Before Meetings 

It takes time and preparation to provide good criticism. Consider writing down your feedback first. If a person wasn’t as prepared for a meeting as they should’ve been, list how that manifested itself in the meeting and why it mattered in a document. 

The process allows you to reflect on what you’re critiquing, Noel said. If you can’t put your finger on why you’re giving them this feedback, then it’s a good sign that it’s either unimportant or needs more time to marinate. 

“[Managers] frequently go into these conversations unprepared. They don’t have a plan. They aren’t coming in with specific examples to make feedback useful,” Waters said. “That sets people off on an Easter egg hunt for like, ‘What does that really mean?’” 

 

5. Empathize With the Feedback Receiver 

It’s important as the person giving feedback to put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving that feedback. Is the feedback actionable? Are you helping the person be successful or punishing them? If you aren’t empathizing with the employee, then it’s not a collaborative effort. It’s just a critique.

“The feedback process is sensitive to emotions, to motivation and to the social environment,” said Carlton Fong, an assistant professor at Texas State University. “A lot of things are at play, and a lot of care needs to be put into delivering the best kind of feedback. When you do, it can be one of the most powerful tools and levers for increased learning and motivation.”

To understand how different individuals process criticism, Fong suggests managers have employees answer the following five questions:  

  • What does the feedback mean to me? 
  • How do I feel about the feedback?
  • Can I improve from this feedback?
  • Do I want to improve from the feedback?
  • Am I socially supported to improve from this feedback?

 

6. Make Sure the Individual Is Ready for Feedback

The person you’re delivering constructive criticism to must be in the right frame of mind to receive it. Otherwise, they’ll either shut down or enter a defensive mindset, which can lead the interaction to spiral into misunderstanding. 

To prevent that from happening, you’ll want to make sure you time the feedback for when the person is open to receiving it. For less urgent matters, this is where your homework establishing how the person wants to receive feedback comes in. Delivering it the way they asked is a great way to build trust.

But sometimes constructive criticism is more urgent or tied to a specific event, like after an important presentation. In those situations, the best thing you can do is just ask the person if they’re open to feedback, Waters said.

 

7. Establish a Back-and-Forth Dialogue 

Turning feedback into a dialogue starts with how you present the information. Rather than lecturing, you should always start from a place of curiosity, Li said. Make it clear that you’re presenting the situation, behavior and impact as a story from your perspective, and that you’re open to hearing their take on the situation.

This gives the person an opportunity to respond, reflect on the situation and feel heard, Li said. Your goal should be to understand their experience, which will give them room to process the feedback on their own terms and ensure you’re accurately addressing the situation.  

Other ways to engage with the employee on the feedback, according to Waters, include sharing an observation and asking them “What’s going on for you?,” asking them to share their perspective and asking, “What do you want to do with this feedback?”

“It’s getting out of the [idea] that you own the feedback,” Waters said. “They own the feedback and you’re just a facilitator in the process.”  

 

8. Give the Feedback Receiver Room to Process

Allow for natural pauses in the conversation to let the person respond. Keep an eye on their body language or facial expressions and modulate your phrasing or tone accordingly if your interaction is in-person or on Zoom, said Hazim Macky, VP of engineering for the crypto financial firm Coinme. If a person’s hands are crossed or they seem disengaged, it might be a good opportunity to either soften your critique or step back and listen. 

In some cases, the employee may need more time to process the information. Give them that space. 

“When I give feedback I say, ‘I know this is new information for you. I want to give you time to process. When would be a good time to check back in with you?’” Waters said. “Let them decide.”  

 

9. Develop a Solution and a Plan for Achieving It

It’s on you as a manager to partner with the employee on next steps and give them another opportunity to improve, Butler said. Without giving them another chance to prove themselves, your criticism will come off as degrading.

Create a follow-up plan and make sure everyone leaves on the same page. The best way to do that is to ask the person to share in their own words what the feedback entailed and what they intend to do about it, Macky said.

“Some leaders really shy from asking if the feedback is listened to and understood,” Macky said. “Asking is the simplest and most efficient tool in making sure the feedback is received and acted upon.” 

 

10. Follow Up on Your Feedback

If you aren’t checking in on the person or following up on their progress, then you’re doing your feedback a discredit. Note when the person has improved by sending them notes that say, “I saw in the last meeting, you did X that we talked about.” This builds up their confidence and establishes your feedback as more authentic. 

Failing to keep track of someone’s development can also lead to you missing out on valuable progress indicators that would look good on the person’s evaluation.  

“Part of the challenge comes around performance review, promotion, salary increase time, because most of the time the constructive criticism will pop back up in that space,” Noel said. “If you haven’t as a manager been tracking it, you don’t know when it happened, you didn’t know the steps of improvement the person took, it looks like they spent the entire year not trying to get better, even though they’ve been working on it.” 

 

Why Constructive Criticism Matters

People want constructive feedback. They want to know how they’re doing and where they stand on the team. 

Constructive criticism can trigger fight-or-flight impulses in the brain, but people can also become highly motivated by it if it’s given the right way, Steelman said. If employees know you give honest and direct feedback, it builds trust and shows you care about them.  

On the flip side, withholding constructive feedback can be just as impactful. While managers may not want to hurt someone’s self-confidence or aren’t sure the issue is that important, avoiding the difficult conversation often causes a long-lasting cascade of effects. 

If an employee doesn’t know they’re making a mistake or doing something wrong, those behaviors will impact their performance. It’ll either lead to a bad relationship with other team members, or they’ll receive a negative performance review. At that point, it’s too late to fix the behavior, and it will impact their opportunity for a raise or get them fired. Or, the employee could move on before getting the input they need to grow and develop.

“You will always learn the life lesson, the question is: When you learn it, is it too late to change the situation that you’re in?” Butler said. “The absence of feedback can cost people career and professional development opportunities. It can burn networking opportunities, stop their money. It could cost so many things that, in my opinion as a leader, that’s really extreme.”

 

Benefits of Constructive Criticism

Committing to constructive criticism can work wonders for leaders and raise workplace morale through the following advantages.
 

Clearer Feedback

Constructive criticism is about bringing an issue to a person’s attention while they still have time to fix it. It involves behavioral feedback that ties your insights to a specific activity with examples, Waters said. For example, telling someone that they need to improve their executive presence isn’t helpful, but telling them you want to see them make more eye contact during meetings or be more proactive with suggesting ideas is something specific they can work on. 

 

Increased Empathy 

Constructive criticism encourages an open conversation between two people, not a monologue. As a manager, you don’t always know all the details that influenced an employee’s decisions or actions. Lecturing them on all their faults, even with their best interests in mind, will only cause the person to shut down. 

By not only offering feedback but also listening to the other person’s perspective, leaders can embrace a more empathetic approach that creates a safe space for employees to reflect on and learn from their mistakes. 

 

Stronger Trust

Unless an employee trusts their manager and knows they care about them, they’re more likely to reject any kind of feedback than become motivated by it. Fong studied this phenomenon among undergraduate students. His research confirmed that students were more motivated by feedback when they trusted their teacher and knew they cared for them.

“If that relational dynamic was absent, there were so many memorable interviews we did where students were totally repulsed by that person,” Fong said. “They’re just like, ‘I’m not going to listen to you’ and they almost take the opposite [actions].”

 

Greater Employee Productivity

Constructive criticism is a way for you to change an employee’s behavior and fix an issue before it becomes a larger problem. If an employee is doing something wrong that’s causing issues on the team, people will either stop working with them or their mistakes will create more work for you and others, Butler said. 

This leads to more work for you as a manager, whether that’s finding a replacement for that employee, dealing with complaints about them or picking up the slack elsewhere.

 

Improved Inclusion

Avoiding difficult conversations or delivering ‘nice’ feedback can be traced back to unconscious biases and contribute to a non-inclusive environment. The 2022 Women in the Workplace report found that only 60 percent of respondents said their managers consistently gave them helpful feedback. This can have major implications for women’s career trajectories, considering that 85 percent of respondents believed they had equal opportunities for growth in relation to their peers when their manager did provide consistent, helpful feedback.     

The result is women and people of underrepresented groups not getting as much developmental feedback as their coworkers, barring them from opportunities to grow in their career, Steelman said. Becoming comfortable delivering constructive criticism can help people of various backgrounds grow as professionals and open doors they may not have had access to if not for receiving thoughtful and supportive feedback. 

 

Examples of Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism depends on the situation and a number of variables. If you’re unsure of how to get started, take some inspiration from the following examples.
 

Example #1 

This is constructive criticism a manager could give to an employee who didn’t seem confident while giving a presentation. 

Manager giving the feedback: I noticed during the presentation that you seemed nervous. It could have been smoother and more powerful, but the message got lost because of the hiccups. This is the story I’m telling myself, what’s your take on the situation?

Employee receiving the feedback: Yeah, I felt confident going into it since I was just reviewing some of our projects from this past quarter. But I realized I wasn’t prepared to speak in front of an audience that included C-suite personnel, and I panicked during a couple of the slides. 

Manager: I want to make sure you’re successful and in the best position to shine. Have you considered practicing your presentation in a mirror? Would it be helpful to come to my office an hour before the presentation to practice?

Employee: Yes, that would be very helpful. I could use some pointers on how to project myself while speaking in front of others, so I would appreciate the practice. 

 

Example #2

Here’s what feedback might look like for an employee who missed a deadline without notifying their manager in advance, according to Waters.

Manager giving the feedback: You said that you would have that done by Friday, but you didn’t follow through. What happened?

Employee receiving the feedback: I had some unexpected tasks come up and I just wasn’t able to get to it.

Manager: It’s totally understandable that it will happen sometimes. The problem is that I didn’t know that you were not going to follow through on the commitment until after it was too late. As a result, I had to scramble to get it done, and it meant that I and one of your teammates had to drop everything unexpectedly and work on it over the weekend to avoid breaking our commitment to the customer.

Employee: I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intention at all. I was so busy trying to get the other things done that felt more urgent that I didn’t realize the impact this would have on you and the rest of the team. 

Manager: It’s important that we keep our commitments to one another and to our customer because when we break them, we also break their trust. I know you can’t promise that nothing will ever get in the way of a deadline again, but can you commit to letting me know in advance? 

Employee: Yes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Constructive criticism refers to giving someone feedback with the goal of helping them correct their mistakes and improve their performance. The process starts with telling someone what they’re doing well before pivoting to offer concrete advice with specific actions they can take to improve. This creates a safe, healthy space for sharing criticism.

Critical criticism is the belief that criticism in itself holds value. This can lead one to always offer criticism simply for the sake of it without providing steps to improve. Constructive criticism is done with the intention of helping someone correct their mistakes, making it more thoughtful and purposeful than critical criticism.

Destructive, constructive and instructive criticism are the three types of criticism.

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