Deliver Criticism Employees Appreciate


June 27, 2020

Criticism is a fundamental and necessary part of growth. If we want to grow as an individual or as an organization we can not do that without feedback, particularly feedback on what isn’t working.

We all understand this and want to grow, and managers understand it and 98% want employees to be open and receptive to criticism. And yet it remains very difficult to both give and receive criticism.

Coach or Critic?

The criticism we need can come from anywhere, including from ourselves if we have a strong sense of self-awareness, but often the most effective criticism comes from someone close to us who we trust to help us grow. We might call this person a coach, but in many ways they are just someone we let criticize us without all the uncomfortableness we feel when others do it.

Managers are in a good position to have this relationship with employees and get them the criticism they need, yet managers don’t always deliver criticism well. When it is done well criticism can strengthen relationships and drive the achievement of mutual goals, but it can also be toxic to a relationship if done poorly.

According to Deborah Bright, author of The Truth Doesn’t Have To Hurt: How To Use Criticism To Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance and Promote Change, there are ways managers can position criticism so that their employees are more likely to perceive it as well intentioned and helpful and therefore be more willing to act on it. Positioning it so that the manager is more a coach and less a critic.

Here are four tips from Deborah that you can take into your next performance review-

Engage around Specific Solutions

Good criticism should be valuable for the person receiving it. If you are simply volunteering that you don’t like how the other person does something you have simply voiced your disapproval without giving them anything to work with. They are left with the stress of being wrong and abandoned in the moment when they need to find the answer for how to improve. Try focusing on specific solutions to the issue you identified and engage your employees around finding a solution as well.

Connect Criticism to What the Employee Cares About

It is important to not assume everyone is driven by the same things that motivate you. Some people might be receptive to criticism framed in terms of the impact on the organization, “when you use that language with customers it drives them away.” While others might be more driven by how they are perceived by colleagues, “Some of your colleagues feel like your language with customers is driving them away.” Understand what angle will resonate most and employees will be more receptive.

Don't Get Emotional

Keep your tone matter-of-fact, your face relaxed, and your body language neutral. Criticism should be a part of doing business, not a reminder of childhood reprimands. Trust that your employees want to be better and either don’t know how or are trying and failing to improve. If your conversation is about why a change is important and how they can get there, there won’t be anything to even get emotional about.

Respect Individual Preferences

Even the best delivered criticism is not easy to receive. Respect that employees have to put effort into taking criticism well and that different employees will have different preferences for where, when and how they receive criticism. Even your most open employees will probably not take criticism well on “bring your daughter to work day,” some employees might prefer feedback on a moment to moment basis, like right after a weekly presentation while others will prefer a summarized version of the feedback less often.

Remember that the goal of giving criticism is not to simply make your disapproval known, but to help drive change in the right direction. We want to drive learning cycles with feedback, change and more feedback. Remember some of these guidelines and employees will be much more likely to receive and act on your feedback well.

What to do next.

Here are three ways you can continue your journey to a more modern and effective performance management strategy:

  1. See PerformYard In Action. Find time with one of our product experts to get a live look at what it's like to use modern performance management software. Every call starts with a 5 minute discussion of your approach and then immediately dives into a live product demonstration that's based on your organization's process. Or start by watching a 2-minute video overview.
  2. Learn more about modern performance management. Start with our Guide to Building a Modern Performance Management System, or visit our blog to see the latest ideas from our team.
  3. If you know other HR Pros who would appreciate this article, share it with them through email, LinkedIn or Twitter.