Using Constructive Criticism in the Workplace

  • Brace
  • January 9, 2019
  • 7 min

Constructive criticism in the workplace is complicated. Too direct and your employees will become defensive, too subtle and they won’t recognize what needs to be improved. Walking this psychological and social tightrope takes finesse and strategy, but with the right steps, it’s easy to aid employee improvement and make a better workplace. Read on to learn common pitfalls of giving criticism, steps to do it well, and key takeaways to use constructive criticism to build up your team.

Stepping Up: Employees Want Feedback

Giving constructive criticism is a challenge for many managers, as no one likes to be the bad guy. Many employees, however, desire constructive criticism in the workplace, but rarely receive it. According to a Harvard Business Review study, workers find constructive criticism more helpful than positive praise by a 3 to 1 margin. What this means for managers is that you don’t have to fear the role of criticizer-in-chief. Stepping up to the challenge of providing criticism helps your employees develop and shows them that they matter through investing energy in their growth. For building a strong team with strong relationships, what matters is not if, but how one delivers criticism.


Doing It Wrong: Common Pitfalls of Constructive Criticism

To critique is to try to improve. But too often this message gets lost in translation. Many individuals, parents, and even workplace leaders, choose the wrong words to truly inspire effective change.

Some common mistakes include:

  • Starting with “You” instead of yourself.
    Launching criticism with “you,” rather than your opinions and thoughts, is a bad start. “You did this wrong” or “You made a mistake in the report” puts people on the defensive from the very beginning, making them feel attacked and thus less likely to hear what it is they need to work on.
  • Focusing on unchangeable aspects.
    What’s done is done, and the past is the past. Focusing on the mistake itself doesn’t help employees improve, but learning from it can.
  • Being subjective instead of objective.
    Saying that something wasn’t “good” or that you “didn’t like it” is very vague and unhelpful criticism. It conflates the action with the person and makes them defensive and less open to finding or hearing improvements.
  • Making criticism a one-way street.
    Kevin Higgins calls this the Seagull Method, where you “Fly by, poop, and fly on,” leaving the employee with the sting and frustration of criticism, but with no direction to improve or reply.

Giving Constructive Criticism: Steps for Effective Employee Improvement

Getting the desired results from constructive criticism requires learning the appropriate ways to discuss it with your employees. It’s typically not what is being said, but how it is approached that makes team members more or less receptive. If your criticism isn’t being received how you’d like, try applying these steps to your tactic.

  1. Sandwich well and sandwich often. The sandwich method is a great way to approach criticism. Start your feedback with a positive note, something that was done well. After this, work in your criticism, and then finish with a positive thought about how it can be improved.
  2. Make it about the particulars, not the person. This is where avoiding “you” sentences comes in handy. Instead of saying “you did that poorly,” reframe your criticism to be about the action. For example, “The report could be even better with a few more sources.” With this structure, you and your employee can address an issue together, rather than the team member feeling like they personally are the problem.
  3. Use specifics. You want employees to grow and improve, and to do that they need to know exactly what can be done better. Great feedback should let your employee know what the issues are, provide specific examples of the problems, and explain why they need to be done differently.
  4. Only address actionable items. It doesn’t help to discuss something that can’t be changed and only leads to frustration on all sides. Rather than personal or unalterable personality aspects, focus your constructive criticism on elements that can be improved. If paperwork wasn’t done properly, highlight the places where formatting or wording can be done better, and if customer interactions are an issue, discuss the exact strategies that could up your employees game.
  5. Give suggestions for improvement. By providing ways to get better, you can show your employee, no matter the criticism, that you still believe in them. Suggesting improvements opens up a conversation about the issue and takes the focus off of the employee as a problem, placing it instead on the actions that need to be addressed and how to achieve them.
  6. Don’t make assumptions. Go into any conversation about constructive criticism with an open mind. You don’t know how an issue arose, the surrounding circumstances, or other influencing factors. Keeping the discussion open and centered on the issue not the person will let you learn what your employee needs and what you can do to help, without stepping on too many toes.

Key Takeaways

  • Avoid using the direct approach, or the “you” method, to provide criticism, as it makes those being criticized defensive and less receptive.
  • The sandwich method of placing criticism between 2 positive comments helps keep employees open to the advice being given.
  • Criticism should always be about the situation, issue, and improvement, not the person.
  • Keep the feedback and discussion open and provide suggestions, so both leadership and employee can learn and grow.

kununu engage unverbindlich kennenlernen - wir melden uns umgehend bei Euch!


kununu engage is an application that allows you and your entire company to share continuous and anonymous feedback about what working in the company is like. This insight and transparency can help a company function better and build a stronger company culture.