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Giving constructive criticism

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees about assertiveness at work.

How can I give constructive criticism at work while making sure no one's feelings are hurt?

Our first therapist suggests...

Aim for effective and supportive communication

The first thing to remember when offering someone constructive criticism is that you are not responsible for their emotions and the way in which they receive it. This is one of the most important aspects of assertiveness.

If you take responsibility for the way in which someone might receive your feedback it will almost certainly have an impact on what you say to them and this often creates a situation whereby you move away from telling someone what they need to hear and move towards telling them a diluted version from which nobody benefits fully.

Once you have that boundary clear you can concentrate on the most effective and supportive way to communicate:

  • Never make any criticism personal because that will negate its positive impact.
  • Be clear and concise, it’s never helpful if your message is ambiguous, so tell people the truth whilst being mindful that the more positively you can present it the more likely you will be to illicit a positive response in return.
  • Always try and deliver feedback face to face, even if it has to be virtual, and be specific enough that you give the other person an opportunity to act on what you’ve told them, as well as giving you both the opportunity to measure the improvement that can come as a result.
  • Whenever you give someone constructive criticism, it’s helpful if you can offer it alongside an example of something that they do well because that builds confidence at a time when it is likely to be required.
  • Finally, become comfortable with the idea that you can’t always be sure the other person’s feelings won’t be hurt and that it’s OK. We have to be responsible for our own emotional resilience.
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Our second therapist suggests...

Listen and be neutral

In terms of communication styles, ‘assertiveness’ can be a really helpful skill for navigating tricky feedback. It falls between aggressive and passive as follows:

  • Aggressive: my needs are more important and must be met. Your needs are irrelevant.
  • Assertive: these are my needs, these are your needs. Let’s find a way forwards.
  • Passive: I have no needs/they are not important. Your needs are greater.

There are times in our lives when we need to be aggressive (emergency situations) or passive (we really don’t mind or another’s need is urgent) but on the whole we try for the assertive communication style. (There is also passive-aggressive, such as sarcasm; I wouldn’t recommend this style 😉).

The simple formula for assertiveness is:

Their needs (we hear and repeat the person’s needs back to them) …HOWEVER… My needs (we tell the other what we want to happen)….SO…..How shall we move forwards?

For example:

"I understand that you would like to go and see Jaws at the movies as you’ve never seen it HOWEVER I would really like to see The Godfather as I’ve never seen it…. SO…..What’s the best thing to do?"

This little formula means that the other person feels heard which, in turn, calms their responses allowing a more successful conversation to happen.

In terms of constructive criticism, it could look like:

“I understand why you decided to do Y…..however…. I believe it would be more useful next time if X was tried (because…). What do you think?”

It’s important to understand the other’s needs first so this may need an initial checking out in a conversation.

When being assertive, the aim is to get our needs heard, not necessarily met. However, we will hopefully have an understanding of why our needs can’t be met should this be the case. Trying to get our needs met (aggression) can create frustration if others can't make this happen for us, and sometimes our needs aren’t the only ones to consider.

As well as assertive, the conversation needs to be as neutral as possible. The other person may well throw blame and personalise any comments so you need to try and stay calm and neutral. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements, for example: “I’m not sure this is the best approach/I feel this would work better”…rather than “You did it wrong”. When posing any questions to this person, it’s helpful to keep them as open as possible in case they feel steamrollered so phrases like “I’m wondering if it would be helpful if..?” rather than “Let’s do X” to give them a sense of choice and autonomy.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips for giving constructive feedback

Thank you for your question on constructive criticism at work. You want to give feedback without hurting anyone’s feelings.

The following are tips for offering feedback:

  • Explain what you want to talk about and why you are giving feedback before doing so.
  • Consider your tone of voice. A friendly tone that is not too loud or too quiet will be the most effective,
  • Focus on the facts. What did you observe? What do you know for sure? Assumptions or focusing on who someone is rather than what they did is never helpful.
  • Ask for what you would like to see instead and give specific examples. Any changes you wish to see should be realistic and make sense to the person who is being asked to make them.
  • Often, people are encouraged to give negative feedback sandwiched in between positive feedback. You may wish to take this approach but bear in mind there are people who may resent this kind of approach and find it disingenuous. If you say anything positive, make sure you mean it and are not just saying it for the sake of it.
  • Ask the employee if they have any questions or comments, or need any help to make changes.
  • At the end of the discussion, summarise what was discussed just so everything is clear. You may also wish to ask the other person to summarise what they heard or took out of the discussion, to check that it has landed with them. It might also be helpful to document the discussion.

Below is an example of constructive feedback for someone who is less productive at work and where this is having a negative impact on overall team performance:

‘Laura, I have noticed that your output at work has been much lower than usual, which affects the performance of the team as a whole. I wanted to check in with you about anything that may be preventing you from completing your tasks and meeting targets. Is there anything I can do to help you get back on track to your usual productivity levels?’

I hope this helps you.

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