How to give constructive criticism that gets results

Show how small changes can be part of the big picture.
By Anslee Wolfe

Offering constructive criticism is an essential part of being a manager. Thoughtful feedback improves communication with staff members while encouraging them to grow.

When done effectively, constructive criticism has long-term benefits in the workplace, said Don Warrick, professor of business management and organization change at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"Concern for others and a desire to be helpful break down barriers to addressing issues and exploring solutions," said Warrick, who has been a consultant and trainer for several Fortune 500 companies. "Make it possible, as much as you can, to create a climate that invites open and straightforward communication and problem-solving by all involved."

But for many professionals, delivering constructive criticism can be daunting, said Loren Margolis, CEO and founder of Training & Leadership Success LLC, a global firm based in New York City that specializes in leadership training and executive coaching.

"Knowing all the benefits, why does the thought of giving feedback strike fear in new leaders? It's likely because you've been on the receiving end of poorly delivered feedback yourself — and you remember how lousy and confused it made you feel," she said.

One tactic that can help is reframing the way you view criticism. "Giving feedback, when it's done well and thoughtfully, is really a gift," said Kiyosha Baird, CPA, a senior finance manager with Microsoft who is based in Redmond, Washington. "You owe that to [your staff] so they can learn and grow. If you don't give that feedback, that's a disservice to the individual and the team."

Here are some tips on how to give constructive criticism effectively:

Be mindful of your approach. Seeing criticism as part of a collaborative conversation can help you view it in a more positive light.

"It is very much a two-way conversation, but the tone needs to be inviting. Tone is vital," said Baird, a 2017 AICPA Leadership Academy graduate.

To strike the proper tone, Margolis suggests opening with wording such as, "Let's talk about the monthly financial reconciliation you started yesterday. There are two things I'd like you to change."

Time it well. A mistake managers often make is letting too much time pass before addressing an issue. Give feedback immediately, said Margolis, who spent nearly a decade as a leadership coach and trainer for accounting and finance graduate students at Columbia Business School.

"When we get constructive criticism too long after the event, we do not see the reason for changing as clearly as we would if it were given right away," she said. "We are human and so are our employees — we forget, or the situation becomes cloudy."

Show the bigger picture. Employees are typically more receptive toward feedback when you call their attention to the benefits of addressing any trouble spots.

"What you want to focus on is going forward and how things will improve," Baird said. "Let them know if they can bring this improvement about, this is how great it will be for the team."

Be prepared to say why it is important for the employee to improve, Margolis said: Will changing their behavior impact team morale, for instance? Business success? Customer perceptions? Quality? Budget?

Be specific. To avoid confusion, describe the actual behavior you would like to see improved and share examples of how that might be achieved.

Early in Margolis's career, a supervisor suggested she "act more like a leader."

"I walked away from that conversation not only confused about what he meant — there are so many behaviors and qualities of a leader — but I also ended up acting in the very same way that I had before he gave me those unclear, unspecific directions, even though I very much wanted to take his advice," Margolis said.

It would have been better, she said, if he had noted that he sensed leadership potential in her and would like her to show it more by taking specific actions such as leading meetings more often, coming in earlier than the rest of the team to serve as an example of dedication, and thinking of innovative ways to deepen customer experience.

Follow up. It's important not only to give feedback but also to discuss ways you can support employees in meeting the expected outcomes. That may include any consequences.

"It's really a full cycle of feedback," Baird said. "It's not just delivering the message, but making sure the message is heard and received."

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colo. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor.

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