The 8 Characteristics of Effective Constructive Criticism

September 7, 2017

Advice for giving effective employee feedback.

Giving feedback to an employee is never fun. And often, the employee’s immediate reaction is annoyance or shutting down, which is never great.

And yet, giving feedback is something all managers should do, as it’s essential to developing employees. The key, obviously, is giving feedback that is constructive.

“What's easy is to give someone feedback and have them walk away confused or even angry,” leadership guru Todd Dewett said in his LinkedIn Learning course, Delivering Employee Feedback. “If you want to be sure they hear you, understand you and feel properly motivated to use your feedback, there are several guidelines you'll want to follow.”

What are those guidelines, exactly? According to Dewett, here are the eight characteristics of effective constructive criticism:

1. All useful feedback is specific, not general.

Specific feedback is far more actionable than general feedback, and also far easier to deal with.

For example, don’t tell an employee they need to run their meetings more efficiently – that’s too broad. Instead, tell them to have an agenda sent out before each meeting and stick to it.

“The more specific your feedback, the more it will be understood and seriously considered,” Dewett said.

2. Effective feedback is descriptive and helpful, as opposed to evaluative and punitive.

Let’s say an employee turns in a report that has errors within it. In haste, you might be prone to criticism them for the errors and tell them it’s not up to standard.

But, taking a minute to be helpful can go a long way here. Describe the errors and ask them how they could avoid similar mistakes in the future, which effectively turns the criticism into a coaching session.

3. Own your feedback.

A classic move when giving constructive criticism is to pass the blame to someone who isn’t in the room or some unnamed force like “management.” That’s both weak and ineffective.

Instead, stand behind your criticism by saying things like “that’s how I see it” or “in my view.” This can be tough, but it’s essential for both showing and earning respect.

4. Address issues, not the person.

Don’t tell a person they are bad at writing reports. Instead, point out the errors within the report.

There’s a deeper psychological reason for doing this. If you tell someone they are bad at something, it reinforces a fixed mindset – you are innately bad at this task and there’s no getting around it. Conversely, if you describe their errors and have them fix it, it reinforces a growth mindset – you have the ability to excel at this task, you just need to learn a few key skills.

Over time, teams with growth mindsets drastically outperform a team with a fixed mindset. So, a little thing, but it can have a big impact.

5. Pick your spots and don’t give too much feedback to a person all at once.

Time and place. Generally, it's best to give a person feedback as soon as possible. But, if the person is stressed or frazzled or feeling down, it’s probably better to wait a day.

Along those lines, different people can handle different amounts of feedback. The last thing you want to do is give someone so much feedback that they lose all confidence in themselves; so instead, be strategic and pick the biggest issue or two.

6. Feedback should be a dialogue, not a monologue.

Great managers are great coaches, and this point speaks to that. Rather than telling a person all the things they did wrong, ask powerful coaching questions to help them work through the problem.

“For example, consider leading with a question,” Dewett said. “Such as, so, how do you feel the meeting went today? This allows them to open up and share their thoughts, thoughts that will help you refine your feedback right there on the fly. You'll need to offer your observations and advise, but they're best delivered as part of a two-way conversation.”

7. Good feedback is checked.

“That simply means that before your conversation is over, you want to inquire about what they heard, give them a chance to show you, in their own words, that the message was received,” Dewett said. 

8. Effective feedback is followed up upon, not forgotten.

You don't want to give feedback and then never bring up the issue again. Instead, make a goal and track how the person is improving in that area, so their weakness transforms into a strength.

“If you feel that your feedback message is important enough to deliver, then it's important enough to follow up upon,” Dewett said.

The takeaway

Giving feedback is harder for a lot of managers than getting feedback themselves. There is a sense of guilt and it can be a generally awkward conversation, as few people enjoy pointing out someone’s flaws.

Following these rules can help with that. Because constructive criticism can be a gift that can turn a good employee to a great one. So don’t be shy about giving feedback you believe in – just make sure you give it in the right way.

Want to learn more? Watch Dewett's course, Delivering Employee Feedback.

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