Become a Better Manager by Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism
People always seem to say they appreciate honest feedback. If you’ve ever given someone constructive criticism, you know how tricky those conversations can be. And when you become a manager, the way you navigate that difficulty can have big consequences for your team or even your entire company. That’s why it’s so important to offer criticism the right way.
“Since we have formalized training around constructive criticism and developing personnel rather than rating personnel, we've seen a lot of growth organizationally,” says Jordan Brannon, president and COO of Coalition Technologies.
Brannon says better constructive feedback has led to longer tenure for team members in all positions throughout the company as well as improved team morale and better results for their clients.
It’s easy to see how results like those impact the bottom line and the experience people have with an organization. Truly constructive criticism, however, is much easier said than done. After all, the art of delivering it can vary for every individual.
So how can you become a better manager and learn how to master giving constructive criticism? Read on to see how the experts make it happen.
1. In-person criticism is best
It can be tricky to find time to communicate face-to-face in our digital world. But Brannon suggests managers provide criticism directly rather than electronically whenever possible.
“It humanizes you and humanizes them in your eyes,” says Brannon.
Even aside from all the misunderstandings that can arise via electronic communication, meeting someone in person can be a way of honoring their participation in the feedback.
“You're not just pass-failing a gizmo in a factory. You're trying to train and motivate a human being,” Brannon says. “The critique is the start of a training and motivation journey.”
2. Do your homework first
Criticism feels bad enough without the added negative emotions of being misunderstood or blamed for something you had no control over. Ideally managers understand exactly what their employees’ responsibilities are, but confusion over specific duties can happen. Make sure you understand someone’s job before you call them to task over a problem.
“If you don't know what they do, you're not the person best suited for coaching or training,” Brannon says.
Additionally, Brannon emphasizes the importance of knowing your employees’ priorities. Maybe they dropped the ball on one project because they believed a different project had higher priority. Maybe they would rather miss a deadline than compromise part of the process.
“If you don't know what they have understood to be most important to them, you're not in a situation where criticism will be accepted without defensiveness,” Brannon says.
3. Don’t bury your criticism in praise
“One of the top things that managers should avoid when providing constructive criticism is being overwhelming with their positivity,” says Jake Tully, creative department head at Truck Driving Jobs. “You are, after all, providing criticism of some sort, and your employees should be professional enough to recognize that.”
While positive feedback can certainly help an employee become receptive to your criticism, too much of it can be confusing and misleading.
“Don’t beat around the bush,” says Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO and co-founder of Square Foot. “They need to be told explicitly what went wrong, and you don't want them guessing.” He adds that one of the biggest mistakes you can make when providing constructive criticism is vagueness.
4. If it can’t be changed, leave it alone
Your first instinct in a moment of disappointment will probably be to talk to your employee, but hold back for a moment.
“Avoid criticizing things that neither you, nor the person receiving the feedback will be able to change,” Brannon says. “If you can't fix it, and they can't fix it, then there is no good outcome.”
Brannon says a critique like this will only waste time and hurt feelings or exacerbate problems. Constructive criticism should serve as a call to action for your employee.
5. Make it a discussion
You don’t have to address the problem by yourself. If you treat your employee as an ally in the course of your critique, you can both work together to find the root of the problem and work toward a solution.
“Ground your 'constructive criticism' meetings as 'exploratory' meetings that explore the reasons behind specific behaviors,” says Mike Saunders, CEO of DigitLab. “Ask questions that lead to a better understanding of the position the individual is in.”
“In most cases the team member already knows where they are struggling and will bring it up themselves,” says Emily LaRusch, CEO and founder of Back Office Betties. “The conversation puts the team member in the driver’s seat, and they are in control of their own success.”
6. Help them feel respected
Many managers take it for granted that their employees feel respected, but it’s always worth making sure. Calling out one of their strengths in the conversation can go a long way.
Tully recalls a writer on his team who was having trouble following the editorial guidelines for their blog. The employee was producing great work, but wasn’t structuring the writing correctly.
“I said, ‘You're a great writer with excellent focus, but you seem to be struggling in how to format your writing for a blog.’ My writer thoroughly appreciated my feedback and clearly got the hang of it after that,” he explains.
Tully says addressing the final product in this way is a better tactic than criticizing someone's work ethic, process or approach.
7. Focus on the single, most critical issue
“Make sure you don't use the 'constructive criticism' meeting as a platform to moan about multiple attributes about the employee,” Tully says. “Have a plan and stick to it.”
Pooja Krishna, co-founder of Maroon Oak, recommends dealing with one thing at a time—even if you would prefer to address several issues that bother you.
“It’s best to focus on the most critical issue at hand and how you hope it can be resolved,” Krishna says. This approach will help your employee feel a clear sense of direction for what to do instead of feeling lost in a cloud of disapproval.
8. Reach out first
“Sometimes a simple ‘What’s going on?’ Or ‘How can we make this better?’ can help immensely,” Krishna says. “I remember calmly speaking to a team member about her erratic performance, when she turned very emotional because—unknown to us—she was dealing with numerous personal issues at that point.”
Krishna decided to set the meeting aside for the moment and take the employee out for coffee instead.
“Two days later she came back, apologized and got back on track with more commitment and a lot of gratitude,” she adds.
9. Be relatable
“Point out a time that you made a similar mistake and how you would have done it differently a second time,” Wasserstrum advises. “This shows that you make mistakes too. Then the next step is how you learned from it and improved yourself.”
Any way that you can establish some common ground in conversations involving criticism will help your employees respond well.
“You likely made some of the same mistakes as the person on the other side of the table from you,” Wasserstrum points out. “This empathy is crucial and will make you a lot more effective as you manage.”
10. Build rapport before criticism comes up
The best managers don’t wait for problem times to meet with their employees and develop their talents. “This is harder and has more to do with the leadership work you do beforehand,” Saunders says.
“Management and leadership is about bringing the best out of people. As a manager, your focus, especially in the area of constructive criticism, should be to help your people win.” Saunders says this attitude of building up your employees will result in them taking moments of criticism more seriously.
Don’t forget your own improvement
Of course, development isn’t for employees alone. Managers also need to give time and effort to improving their own performance on the job—especially when it comes to working with people.
“Of all skills that you will learn in your lifetime, nothing will ever be as important or count as much as your people skills,” Krishna says.
The art of constructive criticism can have just as much to do with a manager’s relationship to an employee as it does with specific strategies. But becoming a manager people respect involves more than constructive criticism. Learn more about effective management with our article, “What Makes a Great Manager?”