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How to Give Constructive Criticism Without Sounding Like a Jerk

There's a nice way to tell someone they're screwing up.

By Sarah Fielding

Let’s be honest: “criticism” is a really intimidating word. It may bring back memories of your work being torn apart, or aspects of who you are being dissected and discounted. But while criticism is often tied to this negative connotation, there’s no reason it has to leave someone feeling sour or hurt. And this couldn’t be more true than when it comes to giving your colleagues criticism at work.  

Whether it’s due to performance or a mishap, criticism is certainly necessary at times, but the way you deliver it is extremely important. “By focusing on constructive criticism, supervisors improve communication with their employees while encouraging them to learn and grow. This shows an appreciation for the employee and that the supervisor is invested in the employees’ future success,” says behavioral consultant Ashleigh Diserio

According to Diserio, while you’re helping a colleague with your feedback, you’re also setting an example that can breed change across your office. “As others observe this happening, it promotes a culture of transparency, congeniality, and collaboration. Employees also feel safe providing input to leadership and are not afraid to try to better themselves in the organization.” 

So while it may feel like criticism is criticism—full stop—learning about its different forms, as well as how best to deliver it, can make a huge impact. 

Speaking of these forms, the most important distinction to keep in mind is that between positive and negative criticism. “Positive constructive criticism helps your employee improve in specific identified areas of concern. The intention is to support their improved performance, not harshly criticize them and make them feel bad about themselves in the process,” says Bonnie Marcus, women’s leadership coach and author of The Politics of Promotion. In contrast, negative criticism often comes off as reprimanding and presents no opening for conversation or solution moving forward.    

With that distinction clear, you can focus on how best to present your observations and concerns to your employee. With these tips in mind, you’ll be giving amazing constructive—and positive—criticism like a pro. 


Don’t Hesitate to Give Feedback

While it may be uncomfortable to give feedback to your colleague, things can’t progress without it. “Often employers hesitate to give feedback because they’re worried that they’ll hurt their employee’s feelings or that the person will quit,” Marcus says. In this case, remind yourself of how important a communicative and well-functioning team is in order to be successful. If you were doing something to hinder work, wouldn’t you want someone to kindly and directly tell you instead of letting the problem grow? As Marcus elaborates, “When an employee knows that their manager is invested in them and wants to help them improve their performance, the dynamic changes. That should be the sole agenda.” The longer you wait, the more potential problems can arise.

Be Clear in Your Feedback

While you may think that generalizing what you’re saying can help spare your colleague’s feelings, all it really does is confuse them while obscuring what you’re trying to say. Instead, Diserio recommends presenting issues in detail and giving concrete examples. She suggests saying something like, “In our meeting today, when we were discussing strategies you were supposed to have come up with, you didn’t bring any to the table.” She stresses the importance of following that up with explaining how it made you feel. “This disappointed me, because I know you have great ideas, and I was looking forward to hearing them.”

Pay Attention to Your Wording

That dreaded word “but” cuts through any positive statement with a forceful knife. O’Brien recommends leaving this negative word out, explaining the importance through these two sentence examples: “You are strong at prioritization, but your cross-functional communication is missing the mark,” is negative and doesn’t present a solution. While “You are strong at prioritization, and improving your cross-functional communication will make you even stronger,” explains the issue in a positive, solution-based manner. Though the difference between these statements is very minimal, the tone is completely different. If you’re not sure how something comes off, imagine what a sentence would sound like if it was said to you, and tweak it based on your reaction.

Meet With Your Colleague Regularly

If you only meet with your colleague when there’s an issue to address, those meetings—and your relationship—can take on a tense overtone. Instead, find ways to give your employee regular and consistent feedback. As Marcus explains, “It’s helpful to schedule regular meetings with your employee and not just wait for performance review time.” By creating this time to regularly check in, not just when you have constructive criticism, you allow for regular communication between the two of you. Plus, your employee is given an opportunity to raise any concerns or ask any questions they might not have time to during a busy work day.

Be an Active Listener

When you meet with an employee to deliver criticism, come into the encounter with an open mind. “Although you have information to share, don’t forget to actively listen to your team member,” says Michael O’Brien, an ICF certified executive coach and workplace expert.

“Most employees don’t set out to miss expectations, so be curious and discover their perspective of the situation and their approach. Within their answer is an opportunity to coach for improved performance.” 

Ask them to tell you why the issue happened and how the two of you can find a solution—a reminder that you’re a team. “When done well, this fact-based approach is not judgmental and doesn’t try to analyze the person’s behavior,” says Diserio. Taking this chance to hear their perspective allows you to more effectively find a solution to whatever issue has come up, while also making it feel like a conversation instead of a lecture.


Remind Your Colleague That You’re a Team

Again, this is not a case of you versus them. It’s just two teammates coming together to ensure their common goals are being accomplished. “When starting the conversation, convey that you are doing it from a caring place,” Diserio says. She recommends prefacing the conversation with a statement such as “I’m telling you this because I see your potential, and I want to help you grow. Let’s work together to see how we can find a solution.” In saying this, you’re reminding them of your shared goals as a team while conveying that you care about their career and future.   

Sarah Fielding

Written By

Sarah Fielding

Sarah Fielding is a freelance writer based in New York and the co-founder of Empire Coven, a space for highlighting trailblazing women across New York. She covers a range of topics, with a special focus on mental health and female empowerment, and her work has appeared at Bustle, INSIDER, Men’s Health, Healthline, Fashionista, Elite Daily, HuffPost, Dorsia, Invisible People, Matador Network, NYLON, and OZY. Find her on Instagram @sarahfielding_

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