How to provide constructive criticism

This is a guest post by Sarah Clare.

As a manager, there is sure to come a time when you have to address poor performance or substandard work. We all make mistakes, and we can all find ways to improve our work. When you are a project manager, it is your responsibility to make sure that you help your team to learn from those mistakes and to find ways to improve the quality of their work.

However, delivering constructive criticism can be difficult. You may not know how to distinguish it from plain criticism, or you may not know how to deliver it in a way that your team members do not receive negatively.

Learning how to give criticism to inspire positive change is a skill that must be learned.

Here are 5 tips for how you can better provide constructive criticism to your team.

1. Deliver it in person

E-mail might be seen as the best way to communicate with busy professionals in some offices, but it’s not always the best way to communicate sensitive information.

There is no tone in e-mail, and something that you intend to say with empathy and understanding may be read flat or even with malicious intent.

It is important to have these conversations in person so that your tone of voice and body language can help to soften the message and to inspire a sense of team work to accomplish a mutual goal. If you are concerned that your colleague doesn’t have the right attitude at work — however that manifests itself — then talking in person will help you understand whether that is the case.

2. Focus on discrete, actionable changes

Criticism can very easily turn into a personal attack or a rambling rant that encompasses everything that you’re unhappy about with the employee.

It is important to be very deliberate by thinking about what you intend to say before you approach the employee and to have a goal in mind for improvement. You can then focus on small, actionable changes that the employee can make to solve the problem, rather than providing vague feedback asking for improvement with no ideas about how to make it happen.

Focus on one or two actions at a time so that you do not overwhelm the employee. Once those are made, if additional changes are still needed, you can revisit the conversation to evaluate progress and to suggest continued improvement.

3. Be liberal with praise

Criticism is always hard to hear, no matter how well you deliver it. You can make it a little easier to bear by being liberal with your praise as well.

Don’t wait until you have something negative to say to offer praise. Make it a habit to praise your team members when you see them doing something great or when they deliver good work.

When you have to provide constructive criticism, you can build on that praise by highlighting recent accomplishments or aspects of the project that have been handled particularly well.

4. Encourage problem solving

You can engage the employee in figuring out how to solve the problem together in order to promote learning and real improvement.

If you tell the employee what you would like to see change, it may not always be effective. You may only train the employee to do what you are asking in order to avoid repercussions – but the employee may not understand why the change is necessary or valuable and, therefore, won’t change the underlying behavior that caused the problem in the first place.

Image of computer
Don’t use email to give criticism

Instead, encourage problem solving together. Instead of providing a solution, talk with the employee about the problem and ask for feedback about what can be done to improve the situation. Look at lessons learned together and work out how to apply them to solve the problem you are facing today.

The process will encourage learning that will facilitate long-term change.

5. Provide a model

If you lecture an employee about being tardy but then don’t roll into the office until 10am every day, you aren’t going to be very effective in inspiring change.

If you talk to others about how to deal with gossiping at work, don’t gossip yourself. It is important to provide a positive role model for the kind of behavior that you want to see.

In addition to providing your own role model, you can support employees in making positive changes by providing mentorship opportunities, support, or ongoing training.

It’s never easy to hear criticism, and it can be even harder to try to give it in a constructive way. Developing thoughtful strategies for delivering criticism can help ensure that your message is heard so that you and your team can work together to create positive change. These strategies can help you accomplish those goals.

About the Author: Sarah Clare is a writer and oversees the site, where she has been researching time tracking software. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys cooking and scrapbooking.

A version of this article first appeared in 2013.