How to Give Someone Constructive Criticism in the Workplace

When I was finishing up a summer internship during grad school, I was scheduled for a feedback session on the final day of work. Having worked really hard throughout the summer, I walked into the session expecting positive, or, at the very least, mixed feedback.

What I received instead was my manager’s biased stance on why she felt certain events had happened in the past couple weeks and what this meant about my attitude. She was wrong. There were other reasons for the recent events that she hadn’t considered. I felt blindsided and shocked that none of my hard work throughout the three months had been considered. I left the office that day in tears.

That memory has stuck with me because I felt that a lot of the standard rules for properly delivering feedback were not followed. Feedback, I discovered that day and again after, is more effective for the recipient if the giver can remain objective and focus on communicating solutions.

Here are some tips for optimally organizing and delivering constructive criticism.

1. Focus on observations. Do not assume intentions.

When organizing points for a feedback discussion, collect examples that support what you’re communicating. However, do not surmise the motivation behind behaviors. Be open when discussing the actions with the individual, and be open to hearing the individual’s rationale or personal circumstances. If you lob unfounded accusations, the other person could become defensive and stop listening.

2. Tie the behavior or action to an outcome.

While you should comment on the person’s actions, it is more impactful if you can tie the behavior to an outcome or describe the negative impact. It provides context for the individual and also establishes that you are not attacking the person but rather critiquing how their behavior impacts others. For example, instead of telling a person that you disagree with the negative comments that they’ve made, explain how it impacts team morale and distracts team members from overcoming obstacles and tackling work.

Incidentally, tips 1 and 2 make up part of the Gordon method for delivering feedback using I-statements: 1) describe the behavior you find unacceptable, 2) share your feelings and 3) identify the tangible and concrete effect of the behavior.

3. Be aware of recency bias.

Recency bias is the tendency to place more value on recent events because of their freshness within your memory. Consider all events regardless of when they occurred. Recency bias can occur for positive or negative behavior. If a person performs well but has a rough couple of weeks recently, you could be penalizing them unfairly. Conversely, if a person underperforms for a long span of time but more recently had major wins, you may be celebrating spurts of good work rather than sustained solid performance.

4. Offer recommendations or alternatives.

In addition to telling a person things that they should try to refrain from doing, offer them some suggestions of some things they should try. A person may be acting one way because they aren’t aware of alternatives. Give them some ideas to “seed” their imagination, and then encourage them to think of other, more productive ways to operate.

5. Deliver feedback in person.

Comments can be misconstrued when delivered over an online medium, no matter how many smiley-face emoticons you use. When possible, deliver feedback in person so that you can see their reactions and adapt what you are saying according to their verbal responses or the body language you witness. Giving feedback in real time and actively taking into account the information that you gather during the conversation allows you to adjust the course of the conversation so that it remains focused on the most important topics.

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