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Updated Jul 05, 2024

Fearless Feedback: 6 Steps to Successful Constructive Criticism

Learning how to give constructive feedback kindly and professionally is key to employee growth and organizational success.

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Adryan Corcione, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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As professionals, we want to hone our skills and improve workplace performance, increasing our chances of advancement and value in the job market. Being able to provide constructive professional feedback is crucial to professional growth and advancement. Managers must be able to intervene and provide constructive criticism to help teams improve and rectify situations before they escalate. Employees should also be able to give colleagues and leadership teams professional feedback to share their perspectives and help their organizations improve.

We’ll share tips and examples to help you provide effective professional feedback and constructive criticism. Plus, we’ll explain why this skill is crucial in the workplace. 

How to give effective professional feedback and constructive criticism

Aisha Blake, Detroit chapter leader of Girl Develop It, identified two types of professional feedback: positive and constructive. 

  • Positive feedback: Positive feedback focuses on what we’re doing right; it feels gratifying and affirms our work. 
  • Constructive feedback: Constructive feedback focuses on how we can improve. While it can feel like criticism, it isn’t always negative. Still, we tend to focus on this type of feedback and often stew about it. “[Constructive feedback] is the feedback we all think about,” Blake noted. “We want to make this about behaviors.”

Sharing professional feedback shouldn’t feel like an attack, but getting constructive criticism right is a nuanced skill. Blake shared six steps to help professionals provide effective, constructive feedback that helps both individuals and organizations improve productivity and performance. 

1. Be specific.

The goal of providing constructive feedback is to change behavior. Without articulating the behavior in detail, the other person won’t understand why there is a problem.

“Keep [constructive feedback] focused and actionable so that there’s a clear path forward,” Blake advised.

2. Deliver feedback proactively.

If the constructive feedback you must share stems from a conflict, delivering it sooner rather than later is crucial. If you wait, you may start holding a grudge, which can manifest in unintentionally snapping at the other person later.

“You don’t need to see into the future, but you need to make sure things aren’t festering for too long,” Blake recommended. “So often the problems we have, whether technical or personal … wouldn’t be such a big deal if someone said [something] the first, second, or even fifth time, but the 17th time, we snap.”

3. Take a breath.

While delivering proactive feedback is essential, some situations require stepping back and cooling off. “Don’t jump in angry,” Blake cautioned.

Because constructive feedback takes a lot of energy, especially emotional labor, take time to fully process your thoughts. Unless you’re dealing with an urgent situation and must act immediately, write down how you would describe the behavior and read it out loud to yourself. Make edits as necessary to help prepare yourself for the real face-to-face conversation.

Did You Know?Did you know
Delivering effective constructive criticism is a sign of a good boss — they typically balance it with positive reinforcement and focus their efforts on talent development.

4. Check your bias.

There are two sides to every story, so stay open-minded and patient when exploring others’ perspectives. “Your perception of the issue may not match the other person’s lived experience,” Blake said.

Acknowledging your bias can help, especially if you’re in a position of power based on your race, gender or other components of your identity.

“I’ve had people [be] intimidated by the way that I look,” Blake shared. For example, in her professional experience, she previously had supervisors make assumptions based on her identity, which prevented both of them from communicating effectively with each other. [Read related article: Is Subconscious Bias Affecting Your Hiring Decisions?]

5. Invite discussion.

Again, an open mind is crucial to effective professional feedback. “Making too many assumptions can hold the conversation back,” Blake warned.

To combat assumptions, initiate a discussion with the other person. Don’t make the conversation one-sided; hear the other person out. After all, you don’t know what outside stressors they carry every day.

6. Follow through.

After an appropriate period has passed after you deliver constructive criticism, evaluate whether and how the other person’s behavior has changed. If they addressed and improved their behavior, consider thanking them at an appropriate time. If the behavior is still occurring and you’re frustrated, be prepared to own your experience; don’t invalidate how you feel.

“At the end of the day, what you feel is not wrong because it exists,” Blake explained.

You may need to follow up with the individual and have another discussion, or it may be time to follow through with a disciplinary action plan as appropriate. 

FYIDid you know
Striving to ingrain both positive and constructive feedback into your company culture will normalize professional, open communication and make the process less anxiety-inducing.

When to give constructive feedback

Tactful constructive feedback is as much about timing as content. If you mishandle the situation, the other person may disregard all your feedback, causing more disruptive behaviors to emerge. 

Consider the following best practices for delivering constructive feedback: 

  • Give constructive feedback during one-on-one meetings. Addressing a team member’s performance in a group setting can feel more like public shaming or boasting than feedback. Schedule a one-on-one meeting so you have the chance to consider your words more carefully and have a constructive, positive conversation.
  • Give constructive feedback shortly after witnessing undesirable behavior. If you notice an employee’s unacceptable behavior, it’s likely that others have also observed it. Letting toxic or disrespectful employees proceed without being checked can kill employee morale and may contribute to employee turnover. Wait a day to see if the employee course corrects — they may have just been having a bad day. If not, prompt attention is necessary. Approach the employee with an open mind in case their behavior wasn’t intentional.
  • Give constructive feedback after establishing trust. Fostering open and honest employee relationships is necessary before offering feedback. Without that bedrock, the other person cannot know whether your constructive comments have their best interests at heart. For a more productive discourse, open your conversations by recognizing the other person’s abilities and value to the team.
  • Offer feedback when an employee turns in good work. Feedback isn’t just about addressing negative behaviors; you can also use it to bolster positive behavior. Acknowledge what team members do well to reinforce those behaviors and add more value to the team as they lead by example.
  • Give constructive feedback when the other person is ready. Giving feedback should be a conversation, not a lecture. Making the other person comfortable can help your feedback come off as friendly rather than antagonistic. If the situation isn’t urgent, let your colleagues choose when they’d be most at ease receiving feedback to encourage more positive reactions and better future work.
TipTip
If you're interested in becoming a good mentor, it's crucial to learn how to deliver feedback without breaking your mentee's confidence. Consider sharing your past mistakes to show that you empathize and want to help them grow.

Examples of professional feedback and constructive criticism

Providing effective professional feedback is a skill that can be learned, practiced and honed. Consider the following examples of typical situations that call for professional feedback and how to handle them.

Providing feedback on time management

Poor time management is a common issue in many workplaces. Perhaps an employee is consistently late to work or meetings. In this case, you may need to deliver constructive criticism that addresses their tardiness while offering potential solutions. Employees are late to work for many reasons, so understanding why they’re consistently tardy is crucial.

Here’s an example of how you might start this discussion:

“We notice you’ve been having trouble making it to work on time. First, we want to ensure you’re not feeling overwhelmed by your schedule. If so, we can discuss some ways to address your workload. Second, perhaps we can create an action plan to help improve your time management skills. As you know, the company offers free Skillshare courses to take at your leisure. If you’d like, you can sign up for a time management course and dedicate an hour of your workday to that this week.”

Recommending further skill development

We all have some skills that come naturally and others that don’t come as easily. A typical form of construction criticism addresses skills employees should work on that would benefit their professional development and the company’s operations. 

For example, say a team member struggles with communication skills. You might provide the following feedback: 

“We value open communication and want to hear your thoughts, feelings and concerns about your work here. We would love to see you improve your communication skills by voicing any confusion or frustrations you have so we can quickly address them. This will help us remain on the same page and ensure you’re not feeling overwhelmed by or confused about a project.”

Offering a compliment ‘sandwich’ 

Many employers use the “compliment sandwich” strategy, which essentially softens the blow of criticism. You start with a compliment to raise the employee’s confidence, then slide in your suggestions and feedback, and then offer one more compliment to round out the interaction.

For example, if your employee is struggling to meet deadlines, you might say something like this:

“We love that you’re such a perfectionist with your work — it’s always clean, concise and right on par with our directions. That being said, we’d love you to prioritize your deadlines more so we receive everything in a timely manner. We really appreciate that we can rely on your precision.”

Bottom LineBottom line
Effective employee communication can include both positive feedback and constructive criticism. When they feel appreciated and seen, your employees will be more receptive to suggestions for improvement.

Benefits of giving professional feedback and constructive criticism

A workplace that prioritizes professional feedback enjoys the following benefits:

1. Giving professional feedback helps you address issues before they progress.

If you call out negative behaviors or mistake patterns early, you can prevent them from advancing into real problems. For example, if someone struggles with workplace collaboration and you fail to address the issue, their inability to work with others might become more ingrained. This could lead to resentment from other team members and affect the overall company culture.

However, if you correct this behavior and encourage collaboration, you’ll give the employee a chance to connect with their colleagues and cultivate a healthier team. 

2. Giving professional feedback shows employees you care.

If you’re willing to provide detailed feedback — and solutions to employee problems — your employees will realize how much you care about their position at the company. Instead of just writing them up or firing them on the spot, you’re supporting their growth within your business. This means you’re invested in them for the long term. 

3. Giving professional feedback helps hold employees accountable.

The more willing you are to provide constructive criticism to your workers, the more accountable they will feel for their behavior. If you allow them to continue making the same mistakes, taking advantage of your time, or repeating certain patterns, they won’t feel compelled to grow or improve their performance. 

Successful constructive criticism

Offering constructive criticism to your employees might feel uncomfortable at first, especially if you dislike confrontation. However, the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. Considering the above benefits, it’s clear why you should provide detailed feedback to your workers.

Thankfully, there are kind and professional ways to deliver constructive criticism, such as offering a “compliment sandwich” or providing solutions that will help support their growth.

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article. 

author image
Adryan Corcione, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Adryan Corcione is a freelance writer. To learn more about their work, visit their website. They also run a blog called the Millennial Freelancer and a newsletter Rejected Pitches.
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