Constructive criticism: A few tips on the constructive part

I once heard that the definition of constructive criticism is when I criticize you. Anything in my direction is unacceptable. At the same time, there are many situations where constructive (not destructive) criticism by a manager is vital to the performance improvement of another. A poor attempt at giving criticism usually makes the situation worse. One survey of retail employees showed that inept criticism was the number one complaint respondents noted about their managers.

To provide constructive criticism/feedback:

Be sure it is constructive. If your motive is to build up your own self-esteem by putting down someone else or to cover up your mistake by tossing the blame in another direction — DON’T DO IT! The goal in maintaining positive long-term relationships is to keep those relationships warm so the other person is open to your input.

Always address situations as close to when they happen as possible. In my experience in coaching leaders over the years, it is not uncommon for someone to wait until a situation reaches huge proportions — then explode in a negative, aggressive way. So act early while both the situation and your attitude is more manageable.

When you do have a discussion it should always be conducted in private. Adopt the kind of attitude and actions you want the other person to exhibit. If you come across calmly you set the bar for the other person. If you view the fault or mistake as something that is easy to correct you will make it easy for the other person. Never say or do anything that could cause the person to be embarrassed or lose face in front of others.

Start the discussion with a sincere compliment to open the person’s mind. Make sure it is 100% legitimate. An insincere compliment is not only transparent, it can be insulting as well. Then move from the compliment to the feedback with “and” rather than “but.”

Listen to the difference:

“Your analysis touched on all the critical issues BUT the section on finance was pretty weak.”


“Your analysis touched on all the critical issues AND it might be even more effective by putting more detail into the finance section.”

As you get into the discussion, it is usually a good idea to ask a lot of questions rather than rattle off a bunch of to-dos. This process also helps keep the meeting in a discussion, not confrontation mode. And always, always put your focus on the problem or mistake, not the person! There is a big difference between saying: “Why did you pay so little attention to the finance section?” and “The finance section could use a lot more detail.”

These conversations usually require some kind of action step as they come to a close. As you try to gain cooperation and make sure that the situation does not happen again, it is always better to request rather than demand cooperation. Let the person know that you are available if they have any questions and end on a positive, friendly note.

Finally, if managers put more thought and planning into these conversations before they take place, the chances for more regular positive outcomes will be enhanced.

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