How to Offer Criticism that Employees Will Welcome

Feb 16, 2015
8 Min Read

Managers often hate delivering criticism, so performance problems may continue to grow. But there is a way for managers to deliver criticism that employees not only welcome, but helps them be more productive and engaged. 

If you Google “performance review phrases” you will turn up more than 4 million sources offering advice such as how to deliver “good” feedback (the employee “is ready for any challenge”) to the “bad” review (the employee is “hostile to feedback or criticism.”)

The reason that millions of these sites exist is because delivering criticism to any worker often feels like handling a rattlesnake – a manager is never sure that it’s not going to turn around and bite him or her at some point. Criticism received badly can damage a relationship with a worker or even make the performance worse by demoralizing the employee.

Deb Bright, a performance consultant who has clients ranging from Morgan Stanley to Marriott, says that the biggest problem with criticism is that managers are often “unskilled givers” of criticism. In addition, workers haven’t been trained on how to be receptive to receiving criticism.

“I don’t think there’s a worker out there who says, ‘I can’t wait to get up for work and go have my boss tell me what I’m doing wrong’ – especially when I think I’m doing OK,” says Bright, author of “The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt.”

Bright says the biggest mistakes managers make when offering criticism to workers is “they don’t understand the importance of thinking before they speak.”

“Once they open their mouth – even though they’re the boss – the power goes to the receiver (the worker),” she explains. “The receiver can challenge or reject or accept what is being said – and decide whether to do anything about it.”

The key, she stresses, is that a manager should first consider the question, “What is my purpose right now?”

“Think about what you’re going to say so that what you will say will be perceived as helpful. If not, zip your lip,” she advises.

It’s also important to lay a good foundation with a team so that they understand how feedback can help them be more successful, she says.

“My employees want feedback because they know that I’ve got business goals and their own career goals in mind,” she says. “They understand that criticism is a given in the workplace and they can’t make the assumption they’re perfect. You cannot escape criticism, and they know I want to manage them to their potential.”

Bright also advises that criticism should be delivered so that the employee is part of the solution. For example, instead of saying, “John, that presentation was poorly organized and wasn’t received well,” a manager can say something like, “John, what do you think you could have done differently?”

“When the manager is doing all the telling, then the employee feels like the manager is saying, ‘You’re stupid, so I have to tell you what to do,’” she says. “But when the manager engages the employee in the solution, then that gives the other person confidence. You’re saying, ‘This is an opportunity to do better.’ That can be very empowering.”

In addition, Bright cautions about always offering a “good job!” no matter the quality of the performance.

“If I took a golf or tennis lesson, and the coach is always telling me I’m terrific, then I’ll be wondering, ‘Am I really getting my money’s worth?’”

For employees who desire more career development, explaining how criticism can help them up their game can be a positive way to help them receive feedback and see it as professional, not personal, she says.  It also helps to begin a conversation by simply saying, “I believe in you,” so that the person understands it’s not a personal attack, she adds.

Bright offers some additional insights into how to better deliver criticism:

  • Depersonalize your message. Stay in the third person or passive voice. For example, say, “This report is late,” rather than “You are giving me this report late.” With this approach, you show that it’s not about “you” and it’s not about “me versus you,” which is what happens when the message is personalized, she says.
  • Offer specifics instead of generalizations. By saying, “You need to be more organized” or “You need to take more initiative,” the criticism seems more personal and leaves the employee without a clear idea of what needs to be done. Be as specific as possible about what you want done, providing examples if possible.
  • Show faith. After criticizing the person, give her the same or a similar task to perform. “Now your actions are more powerful than words to convey your belief in the individual,” she says.
  • Move on. During the discussion, take notes. At the end, hold it up and ask the worker if anything needs to be added. If the answer is “no,” rip up the sheet of paper, throw it away and say, “Let’s move on from here.” That allows the person to “absorb the mistake and remember the lesson,” she says.
  • End on a positive note. Once the criticism conversation has concluded, change the subject and ask about a recent ski trip or child’s activities. “Changing the subject sends the message that things are OK between us, even though we had to address a situation,” she says.

Finally, Bright argues that organizations that don’t train managers and staff on how to deliver and receive criticism effectively are undermining their productivity and bottom-line results.

“Organizations that do not skillfully address criticism are breeding grounds for mediocre outcomes and low morale,” she says.