How to give criticism effectively

Receiving criticism is like swallowing bad-tasting medicine. We wish we didn't have to take it, but we know, if it's valid, it will make us better.

Criticism is often as difficult to give as it is to receive. We don't like to criticize because we don't want to hurt feelings. Because of this, many managers rank giving negative feedback high on the list of techniques they want to improve.


Even the best employees occasionally need to hear how they can improve their work. In fact, as a good coach, you owe it to your employees to recognize excellent work, as well as to give criticism, so they have a clear picture of the performance you desire.


If employees only hear about their work when they do it wrong, they may feel unappreciated and withhold extra effort because "the boss never notices anyway." You risk getting an average performance out of a star performer.


Conversely, if employees hear only positive remarks or silence, they are being cheated out of important feedback that could help their careers. For example, studies have pointed out that some male bosses are hesitant to criticize female employees because they aren't sure how they'll handle it.


Here are some basic guidelines to help you deliver corrective criticism:


Don’t sugar-coat the criticism with compliments.

Even though you may think it will make the criticism easier to take, you may send mixed signals to your employees. They may either doubt the sincerity of your compliment or not take the advice as seriously as they should. For example: "John, I really think this report is well done, but there are quite a few little things missing."


Instead, focus immediately on the task or behavior you wish to change. This doesn't mean you should ignore the need to preserve your employee's self-esteem, however. Example: "John, these fact sheets are incomplete. You're usually very thorough in your reports. Can you tell me anything about this?" This preserves the employee's self-esteem and reduces defensiveness, while staying focused on the specific problem.


Give negative feedback on only one thing at a time.

Overloading an employee with several criticisms at once can diffuse the importance of each item. For example: "Sharon, there are too many typos in this letter. You have to be more careful. It's just like your filing...I couldn't find the Evans report this morning...and another thing...."


Overloading criticism is also unproductive because it tends to make your employees feel ineffective, frustrated and resentful.


It is better to concentrate on one issue at a time and to deal with the most important area first.


Be specific about the change or result you want.

The change you want is probably so obvious to you that you assume it is understood by the employee. Constantly communicating your standards and expectations helps everyone stay on track. Consider the time, energy and anxiety caused by this vague criticism: "Brenda, you must work on writing better memos. Work on improving your style next time. It needs to be tightened up, OK?"


A better approach might be: "Brenda, you made some interesting points in this memo, but they were hard to find because of the memo's structure. Next time, try limiting it to a half page and underline each key point."


Offer criticism in the form of advice and give it right before the employee has a chance to try again.

This technique makes the feedback sound supportive rather than punitive. It can be difficult to discipline yourself to do this because our tendency is to routinely offer criticism immediately after a mistake is make.


Here's how it could be done: "Pete, you have some difficult formats to put together for this report. I'd like you to be consistent with the other technicians in the way you lay out the data. When you get to that part, let me know. I'll show you how I'd like it done."


This timing technique of describing the change you want, right before they can practice it, isn't always practical, but when used correctly, it is an effective coaching tool. Athletic coaches use it all the time to make performance adjustments.


Involve the employee in thinking through solutions.

This helps to eliminate blaming.


Listen to this exchange:

"If Accounting had gotten the information to me on time, I could have prepared a complete report."

"Do you have any ideas about how to get those figures from Accounting on time, next time?"


Pointing the finger at Accounting isn't going to solve the problem, so the manager put the responsibility where it belonged- with the employee. Only if the employee's facts clearly indicate that the fault lies elsewhere, and is beyond his or her authority to handle, would the manager intervene.


Involving the employee in thinking though solutions to mistakes encourages a healthy discussion of the problem and forces the employee to take responsibility for solving it.


Giving criticism is usually not easy but knowing how to do it well increases the likelihood that it will be heard and acted upon. It will make you a boss everyone will want to work for. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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