How to give effective criticism

by Kayla Crum on May 2, 2024

Giving feedback is difficult. You want to help your team grow and learn. You know that mistakes and failures are important teaching moments. And yet, you hesitate. The last time you tried to offer feedback, it blew up into a conflict. Or maybe you felt so uncomfortable you weren’t able to fully address the real issues.

As leaders, it is possible to lean too far into criticality or too far into complacency. The key is to strike a balance, maintaining your team’s trust and respect while still being able to correct and guide behavior that detracts from team goals.

The Harvard Business Review recommends four approaches to giving constructive criticism.


1. Be specific

Key to the efficacy of criticism is its specificity. Generalized statements that someone needs to “improve” or that output has been “unsatisfactory” don’t lead to actionable change, just feelings of discontent.

Some leaders may fear that precise feedback will make their employees feel micromanaged. While it is possible to overdo it, precise feedback typically leads to precise results. It implies you are not criticizing someone’s personality or unique traits; rather, you are requesting a change in approach to a particular part of their workflow.

One way to become more specific in your feedback is by inviting the critiqued employee to problem-solve with you immediately after receiving the criticism. This leaves no room for miscommunication or guesswork as to what you want.


2. Bring in shared values

When inviting an employee to problem-solve alongside you, a great approach is mentioning shared values.

This could mean referencing the company’s values; for example, if open communication is a value for your team, you could remind an employee who rarely replies to email that this behavior sends a message of distance and aloofness whether they mean it to or not.

Another way to motivate change after criticism is by highlighting that particular employee’s values. If work-life balance is really important to them but they are continually late to the office, have a discussion about how you can better support them to arrive on time. Troubleshoot what is holding them back and remind them that you want to support them in their goal of work-life balance. Be flexible where you can, and explain rationale for set expectations where you can’t.


3. Be mindful of your non-verbal cues

Remember that the words you say sometimes matter less than how you say them. Body language, tone of voice, and even the location of a feedback session can all impact how the criticism is received.

A neutral facial expression and calm tone of voice are usually your best approach. Be sure to schedule one-on-one sessions ahead of time when possible to ensure your employee can come to the meeting prepared to receive constructive criticism. If in-the-moment feedback must occur, try to give it privately and mention that you’re available for follow-up conversations.


4. Be personal

While it may seem like the last thing you want when giving criticism is to be personal, personalizing your approach actually goes a long way toward effective change.

Check in with each team member and find out how they prefer feedback be given: in the moment, on a set schedule, or a mixture of the two. Accommodate their preferred method of communication when possible; some people may like face-to-face conversations while others prefer the privacy of reading an email.


Get feedback on your feedback

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