Constructive criticism

Pamela Howard, B.A., M.Ed.
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

Offering and receiving constructive feedback is essential for building self-respect and effective relations with others in the workplace. Constructive feedback supports improvement and is clear, direct and kind. It doesn’t aim to manipulate, dig up old issues or set unrealistic standards. When received well, constructive criticism creates an opportunity to learn and do better, while defensive responses can damage relationships and reputations.

Whether you’re a manager or team member, consider the following suggestions for offering constructive criticism:

  • Pick the correct person. Individuals often complain to everyone but the person who is responsible or who has authority to make a change in the situation.
  • Speak to the person privately whenever possible. Privacy helps to minimize a defensive response because the person isn’t embarrassed in front of others.
  • Be specific in describing the behaviour of concern. Describe what the person said or did without suggesting a motive. For example, it is not effective to say, “You don’t care about your team members.” It would be more useful to say, “I’ve observed that you arrived late to work three times in the last two weeks and your team members are completing extra work when this happens.”
  • Timing is important. Discuss the issue as soon as possible after it has taken place. With a long delay, everyone is more likely to remember the events differently.
  • It may sound like a contradiction to the previous point but “Strike when the iron is cool.” When you are upset, your choice of words and tone of voice may get in the way. When possible, calm yourself before proceeding.
  • Discuss only one issue at a time. It can be overwhelming to receive criticism about several things at once. Don’t bring up old problems that are unrelated to the present issue. Be concise – trim it down to the key points.
  • Realistically assess the person’s options when you offer criticism and request change. Frustration is increased when people are reminded of some issue over which they have no control. Direct your criticism toward behaviour that the receiver can do something about. Be specific about the change you want.
  • Offer information on the impact that the problem behaviour has for you. Remember to take responsibility for what you think or feel by using “I” statements.
  • Check to be sure that your message has been clearly understood.
  • When feedback is mixed, the impact is diluted. If you are serious about the issue, your facial expression should match your words.
  • Give information about the problem, not advice. People have the right to decide for themselves what they will and will not do.
  • Cultivate openness to constructive criticism by offering positive feedback when appropriate and often. If people recognize that you appreciate much about what they do and you are receptive to listening to their views, they are less likely to shut down or be defensive when dealing with constructive criticism.

Many of the ways that we react to criticism can be counterproductive. Among the most common emotional responses are anger and fear. Emotion is understandable but can distract us from examining the message and make us react in unhelpful ways. Others will tend to defend themselves through counterattack. Rather than resolving the issue, this tends to escalate things and makes matters worse. Some people will feel shame and inadequacy. Excessive self-criticism can interfere with our ability to respond in a useful way, learn and move forward.

If you are on the other side of the table, it can be stressful to hear criticism, even when it is constructive. To help you take in the comments with an open and willing attitude, here are some tips on receiving feedback:

  • Take deep breaths to focus and calm yourself. You can centre yourself and choose how to proceed. Listen and wait. Pay attention to the key points.
  • Stay on topic.
  • If criticism was delivered in vague or general terms, ask for specific examples to assist you in understanding their concerns.
  • Even if feedback is not expressed well, consider whether there may be some value in it.
  • When appropriate, show them that you take the situation seriously.
  • Explain your version of events without offering excuses or repeated justifications.
  • Don’t argue or attempt to retaliate.
  • If you have been at fault, acknowledge your actions and offer specific suggestions to address the issue.
  • If needed, ask for time to absorb and reflect on the feedback and request to meet later to continue the discussion.
  • Respond to the way the criticism has been delivered. If the person has been respectful and appears to be well-meaning, offer some positive feedback about delivery style. If the criticism was delivered in an unhelpful or unclear way, suggest an alternative way of communicating that would help you to really hear what is being said.

Ultimately, we choose our behaviour and whether to change or deal with the outcomes that we produce. Behaviour is learned and can be modified with practice.

Giving and receiving feedback is an integral part of effective working relationships. When we work at giving and receiving criticism well, we also cultivate assertiveness, responsibility, and the ability to adjust our behaviour when we need to. These qualities are beneficial in and out of the workplace.