Constructive Criticism Is a Key Management Skill. Here’s How to Give It.
Providing constructive criticism is one of the most important duties a manager has — it’s also one of the most misunderstood.
Everyone has stories of bad criticism they’ve received throughout their career, of managers reaming them out in front of their colleagues and vague behavioral critiques like “You need more executive presence” that leave you guessing on how to fix it.
Lexi Butler, founder of Sista Circle, a community for Black women in tech, estimates that the vast majority of feedback that she’s received throughout her career in tech has been “messed up,” either because managers withheld valuable criticism or just gave bad feedback.
What Is Constructive Criticism?
Giving critical feedback is a soft skill, and it’s one people tend to shy away from. It’s assumed that critical has to mean negative. Giving criticism has been shown to trigger anxiety and stress in the feedback giver as well as the receiver, according to a study from the leadership coaching firm NeuroLeadership Institute.
As a result, managers either avoid giving criticism or they’re too critical, according to Joanna Li, a professional development coach at home services software Jobber. They don’t develop the skill, which results in stagnant employee growth at best and a culture of fear and distrust at worst.
At root is the assumption that constructive criticism involves confrontation and correcting someone’s behavior. But that’s only part of the conversation.
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.
To provide effective constructive criticism, it should be timely, behavioral, impact-driven and solution-oriented. But what does that mean, exactly?
Timely criticism doesn’t mean calling someone out on a mistake the moment it happens. Instead, it’s about bringing an issue to a person’s attention while they still have time to fix it.
Behavioral feedback involves tying your insights to a specific activity with examples, said Shonna Waters, VP of strategic alliance for BetterUp, a career development platform. 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.
“They can’t be aligned on my expectations if I’m not clear on what it is.”
“If I can’t get to the level of defining what specifically I need to see them do, then I probably have some more work to do,” Waters said. “They can’t be aligned on my expectations if I’m not clear on what it is.”
The impact-driven element should make clear why the problem matters. If you tell a software engineer that they added latency to the code, that can mean any number of things, said Thalida Noel, CTO of the rental platform Tourus. Is it a big deal? A little one? Did it bog down the code or was it imperceptible? Be specific about what the impact is for their behavior so they know the consequences for improving it.
Finally, solutions-oriented means working with the employee to come up with a plan of action to correct the behavior.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that giving constructive criticism should be a conversation between two people, not a monologue. As a manager, you don’t always know all of the details that influenced the person’s decisions or actions. Lecturing them on all their faults, even with their best interest in mind, will only cause the person to shut down.
To create change, they have to buy into the feedback, Waters said. 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.”
Why Constructive Criticism Matters
Let’s get one thing out of the way when it comes to constructive criticism — it’s not easy. It’s much simpler to tell someone “Good job” and move on than it is to sit them down and confront a mistake or area for improvement.
But few actions have a larger impact on you and your team.
For starters, people want constructive feedback, said Lisa Steelman, an industrial organizational psychologist and professor at the Florida Institute of Technology. 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.
It’s 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.
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.
Bad feedback can end up having a lasting effect on employees, too.
Waters still remembers the time a manager told her years ago that she intimidated her team members. “I swear for the next 10 years of my life, I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ Am I not smiling enough?,’” Waters said. “When [managers are] describing it as a characteristic of you as opposed to something you’re doing, it starts to connect to your sense of self and identity.”
For Li, it was when a manager once lambasted her for a mistake in front of all of her coworkers. From that point on, any trust she had in the manager or the company was broken, and she started looking for a new job.
“I felt horrible after that. I felt humiliated. I was able to quit that job as soon as I could,” Li said. “That was probably the worst way to give feedback. It was in a public space, and also it wasn’t a dialogue. The person was already in the mindset that ‘You did something wrong, and I’m going to tell you.’ … It made me view that entire workplace as a negative place to work.”
But still, the worst mistake a manager can make is to not give criticism at all.
The Consequences of Not Giving Constructive Criticism
While correcting bad criticism receives most of the attention in professional development circles, Butler argues that the absence of criticism is just as damaging.
On the surface, withholding constructive feedback may not seem like that big of a deal. Perhaps you don’t want to hurt someone’s self-confidence or aren’t sure the issue is that important.
But avoiding the difficult conversation often causes a long-lasting cascade of effects, Butler said.
For starters, the person will never know that they’re making a mistake or doing something wrong, but 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 person moves 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.”
It’s your responsibility as a manager to make sure it never gets to that point, Butler said. As a result, she sees failing to give criticism not just as negligence but as a damaging act.
Withholding criticism also has its roots in unconscious bias. Historically, women and people from underrepresented groups don’t get as much feedback as their counterparts who are cisgendered white men, Steelman said. Women are still battling gendered stereotypes from men in management roles who think women aren’t strong enough to take feedback.
A study from Harvard Business Review found that women received more vague praise than men and less developmental feedback. Women are also 20 percent less likely to receive constructive, developmental feedback compared to men, according to the “Women in the Workplace” 2021 report from management consulting firm McKinsey and Company.
“Women and minorities don’t have as much latitude and flexibility in the workplace, and managers can be more critical of their performance,” Steelman said. “Everything that comes with stereotypes can create problems in terms of giving critical and favorable feedback.”
The end result is women and underrepresented groups don’t get as much developmental feedback, barring them from opportunities to grow in their career, Steelman said.
Whether you’re comfortable with constructive criticism or not, avoiding the conversation will only do more harm than good. To help with that, we’ve compiled a list of actions you can take right now to start providing effective constructive criticism.
How to Provide Constructive Criticism
5 Steps for Providing Constructive Criticism
- Develop a culture of trust.
- Prepare for the feedback and empathize with the receiver.
- Set the stage for a collaborative discussion.
- Be clear, direct and curious.
- Follow up on your feedback.
Develop a Culture of Trust
Before you can start doling out feedback, you have to build trust with your employees.
Even the most well-intentioned criticism can be a bitter pill to swallow. Coating your feedback in sugary praise won’t get you very far, either. Unless the employee trusts their manager and knows they care about them, they’re more likely to reject the feedback than become motivated by it.
Carlton Fong, an assistant professor at Texas State University, 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].”
If you want to build a culture where feedback can flow honestly between employees and managers (and you do), then you have to create an environment for it to thrive. This starts with sitting down with each employee on your team and understanding how they prefer to receive constructive criticism.
How to Create a Feedback-Friendly Work Culture
- Ask each team member how they like to receive feedback.
- Be available to your employees and solicit them for feedback.
- Be proactive with your praise to build goodwill and trust.
Difficult conversations are going to happen one way or another, Noel said. The more you can present it in a way that the person is comfortable with, the more likely they’ll be receptive to it.
To help figure out your employee’s preferences, Noel suggests asking your reports what medium they prefer to have feedback conversations over — whether it’s in person, asynchronously over Slack or via Zoom — 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, Noel said.
But sometimes employees don’t have the vocabulary to describe their own preferred work style or how they like to get feedback, Butler said. In those situations, Butler recommends asking them to 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.”
But you’ll 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 Steelman, the industrial organizational psychologist and professor at 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.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of positive feedback. Waters recommends thinking of criticism like withdrawing goodwill from a bank. 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.
In this case, telling an employee “Good job” doesn’t qualify. Just like negative criticism, it needs to be based on a specific behavior and tied to a direct positive result to be effective. If they nailed a presentation, for example, you might say that they did a good job anticipating the audience’s questions, which made the report more credible. That way the person knows what actions they should repeat.
Li suggests adhering to what’s considered the ideal 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. Rather, 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 (more on that later) can help you keep track of your ratio.
Ultimately, the goal is to create a pattern in which you’re providing positive feedback significantly more often than negative feedback, Li said. That way, when an employee does need constructive criticism, they don’t feel like one mistake cancels out all of their positive qualities.
Prepare for the Feedback and Empathize With the Receiver
Once you develop rapport with your team, you can start providing constructive criticism. But not all criticism is fair game.
It can be easy to latch onto the first mistake someone makes and treat it like a learning opportunity. But the worst thing you can do is rush headlong into a feedback session with a vague critique or nit-pick. Nothing erodes an employee’s confidence like being told, “You lack confidence” or “You had a spelling mistake in your presentation.”
“[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?’”
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.
How to Prepare for Giving Constructive Criticism
- Write your feedback down. Be specific about what the person did, why it mattered and how they can improve.
- Consider who else may need to hear that feedback and if there’s more support you can provide the team.
- Put yourself in the employee’s shoes. Consider how actionable your feedback is and how you can assist them.
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.
It can also prevent you from targeting any one individual. There are times when a person’s mistake reflects a larger pattern within the organization. For example, perhaps all sales team members fresh out of college struggle with making their weekly cold call targets. This could be a sign that rather than directing the feedback at one person, you need to build better infrastructure to help those employees.
“What [writing down your feedback] does is you can take the time to consider if the feedback applies to multiple people,” Noel said. “So managers should consider who else should be receiving this feedback. And what is the common factor in the people who need to receive this feedback?”
It’s also 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,” Fong said. “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.”
In an ongoing study, Fong is exploring how the people who receive feedback process criticism. He suggests they answer five questions to put their critique to use:
- 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?
Managers should be asking themselves those same questions from the perspective of the feedback receiver, Fong said. Doing so, they may notice that the person needs more support to act on the feedback, or that it may crush the person’s motivation so it needs to be presented delicately.
“We can look at these questions and put ourselves in the feedback receiver’s shoes,” Fong said. “Is it something that they can act on? Do they want to improve? Is it motivating? Is it manageable? How are they going to feel when they receive this feedback? Are they going to know what it means?”
Set the Stage for a Collaborative Discussion
Before entering a feedback session, it’s important to remember that how and when you deliver feedback is just as valuable as what you have to say.
Giving constructive criticism can be a tense affair. As such, you want to make sure the person is in the right frame of mind to receive your criticism. 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 opening to receive 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.
3 Tips to Set the Stage for a Collaborative Discussion
- Time your constructive criticism for when the person is open to receiving it.
- Ask the person for permission before giving them feedback.
- Visualize yourself giving the feedback next to the person rather than across from them.
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, of BetterUp, said.
If you start the conversation listing off what they could’ve done better, it’s going to feel like a gut punch. You can let them know you have some feedback, but let them address it on their own terms.
“What you can say is, ‘That was a fantastic job. I have a ton of thoughts I’d love to share with you about this. When would be a good time?,’” Waters said.
Asking for permission also helps the person get into the right mindset to start receiving criticism, Waters added. While that can help put the employee at ease, it’s important that you, as the person giving feedback, are also in the right mindset for the discussion.
Before going into the meeting, Waters recommends visualizing yourself sitting next to the person not across from them. The idea is to break down the power dynamic that can exist during those meetings, Waters said. By imagining yourself next to the person, you’re partnering with them and working together to fix the issue rather than delivering an edict.
Be Clear, Direct and Curious
Now, comes the hard part — giving the feedback.
There are two common mistakes managers can make that will discredit the message. The first is to hold onto the feedback torch, draw from your notes and experience and deliver a criticism monologue, Waters said. That will only put the receiver in a defensive position, which can trigger distrust, doubt or frustration.
How to Give Effective Constructive Criticism
- Get straight to the point. Don’t cushion your criticism with fluffy praise.
- Ask questions throughout the process to understand the employee’s perspective and engage them in the discussion.
- Work with the employee to come up with an action plan to improve on the behavior.
The other is to try and cushion the blow with fluffy praise before and after the critique, otherwise known as the feedback sandwich. The commonplace method is based on the misguided notion that a little sugar helps the medicine go down when it comes to criticism. Instead, it muddles the message and only makes the manager feel more comfortable because they’re side-stepping confrontation, according to a study from the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business.
In interviews with students, Fong, the Texas State University professor, said that those who received the feedback sandwich reported that the praise felt inauthentic and that it made them less motivated to correct the issue. Even worse, you can end up creating a situation where every time you want to praise an individual, they’re braced for a “but” at the end.
Effective constructive criticism should be a direct conversation delivered with empathy.
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, of Jobber, 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.
For example: “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?”
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?”
“They own the feedback and you’re just a facilitator in the process.”
“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.”
You’ll also want to make sure to convey the consequences of the behavior. Describe who it affects, and why it’s important to fix that mistake. Doing so helps the person understand the urgency and importance of the criticism.
Along the way, you’ll want to create natural pauses to let the person respond. Keep an eye on their body language or facial expression 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, Waters added. 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. People know themselves. Some need a week, for others, they’re going to be thinking about this for the next 24 hours and are going to need to get it off their chest.”
Pivoting to Solutions
Once you’re on the same page, you can start discussing solutions. This is an opportunity to reiterate that you want the person to be successful and that you’re there to support them. Then offer to work with them to find a solution.
“When we talk about feedback, you’ll have people who will say things like, ‘You were wrong,’” Butler, of Sista Circle, said. “That’s one of the very clear examples of when feedback is not constructive.”
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 themself, your criticism will come off as degrading.
Building on the presentation example from above, you might say: “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?”
The final step is to 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.”
Constructive Criticism in Action
Here’s what feedback might look like in action 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?
Follow Up on Your Feedback
The job isn’t over yet. The difference between an OK manager and a great one lies in the follow-up, Macky said.
If you aren’t checking in on the person or following up on their progress, then you’re doing your feedback a discredit. The person’s enthusiasm may deflate because they don’t feel supported, and you may miss out on valuable progress indicators that would look good on the person’s evaluation.
All feedback should be recurring. Macky keeps sticky notes on his desk reminding him to check in with people he’s given feedback to and to observe their progress. Depending on the scale of the change, he’ll then follow up every couple weeks or months to see how the person is doing.
A few questions he recommends asking include:
- How can I be the best partner while you’re going through this change?
- What have you done recently?
- Do you still need some support or advice?
“It builds trust because it shows that I’m invested in your growth and change,” Macky said. “I’m not just being passive on the sideline.”
It’s also important to note when the person has improved. Sending them notes that say, “I saw in the last meeting, you did X that we talked about,” are what build confidence and lend your feedback authenticity.
How to Follow Up On Your Constructive Criticism
- Create a plan to follow up with the employee on their feedback progress.
- Develop a constructive criticism document to chart feedback, praise and growth.
- Celebrate your employee for taking positive steps to improve.
Still, keeping track of every employee’s progress throughout the year can be challenging. To help with that, Noel, CTO of Tourus, creates a joint constructive criticism document for each employee.
Together, both she and the employee will log feedback and then update it with key wins and progress reports. She’ll also write down in the employee’s one-on-one document when feedback was given to use that as a reminder to check in and ask how they’re progressing.
“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.”
Most of the time, people want to improve and do a good job. You can either hold them back by withholding criticism, or confront the issue and then support them through their growth.