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20.04.2022 Company Culture

Constructive criticism: How to give criticism constructively

Constructive criticism: How to give criticism constructively

Whether professionally or privately, everyone is occasionally confronted with criticism. However, few things are as frustrating as simply being pointed out for mistakes or shortcomings. Only constructive criticism enables people to learn and grow.

Chances are you’ve experienced this as well. A supervisor criticising you or your work, without actually explaining the underlying problem or giving advice on what should be done instead.

When this happens, employees often take this criticism personally and feel unjustly reprimanded, which leads to frustration and demotivation. And this, in turn, can lead to tensions and conflicts that could’ve been avoided.

Constructive criticism can prevent exactly this, while at the same time promoting the personal and professional development of your employees. Below, we explain what constructive criticism is and how to give constructive criticism effectively.

Constructive criticism definition

Let’s start by giving a definition: What is constructive criticism?

In short, giving constructive criticism is the art of providing clear and actionable suggestions to ultimately help improve someone’s work or performance. As such, constructive criticism is solution-oriented and encourages learning.

Ultimately, this form of criticism is nothing other than a type of feedback. And this should always have the intention of helping the addressee. That’s why constructive criticism is above all a beneficial form of criticising, which not only points out the goal, but also provides possible ways to get there.

Destructive (scathing) criticism, on the other hand, attacks people directly and is often general or very vague. Common characteristics include irony and sarcasm, negative body language, strong distancing, and clear emotionality. All of this, however, is unprofessional and has no place in a fruitful working relationship. And what’s even worse is that it does not help the criticised employee one bit, only leading to frustration.

Why is constructiveness important when criticising?

Why is constructive criticism important? In a nutshell, if managers simply refrained from giving constructive criticism, their employees would constantly run the risk of making costly, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous mistakes.

But, that’s not all. Consider the following five reasons in favour of the constructive approach:

  1. Employees learn better from their mistakes
    If you just tell an employee they’re doing something wrong, without explaining how to improve it, they won’t learn from their mistakes. They might start to doubt themselves, or perhaps they simply ignore what you said. If you instead offer constructive criticism and support employees with helpful advice, there will be a much bigger learning effect.
  2. Criticism is not feared, but appreciated
    Another thing that employees learn from constructive criticism from their superiors is that criticism is helpful and useful, and you don’t have to fear it. In fact, it even makes it more likely that your employees will specifically ask for it.
  3. Strengthening personal/professional development
    The constructive nature of your criticism gives your employees the chance to develop in the direction they want to go, both personally and professionally. Some advice should even improve your employee’s overall performance in the long term.
  4. Constructiveness motivates
    Imagine your employee wants to reach the next level in their career. To grow into the next position, they need to learn how to do it properly. But without a culture of constant feedback and suggestions for improvement, this is almost impossible to reach for the employee. And when something seems impossible, motivation eventually drops. Helpful guidance, on the other hand, motivates your team members and encourages them to constantly outgrow themselves.
  5. Better employee retention
    People who feel appreciated, supported, and encouraged are less likely to consider changing jobs. Consequently, constructive criticism can have a positive impact on your employee retention, especially if it is accompanied by a culture in which making mistakes does not lead to repercussions.

10 basic requirements of constructiveness

Constructive criticism is always a request for change—be it in the employee’s behaviour or their way of working. And those who ask for something increase their chances of being heard, preferably in combination with positivity, respect, and recognition.

That is why it is important to know and always keep in mind the basic requirements for the desired constructiveness:

  1. No direct judgement
    Something that criticism never does according to the constructive approach: Condemn mistakes or devalue people. Otherwise, it is not the employee who will grow, but rather their desire to change jobs. Instead, constructive criticism should merely point out what has happened (“I noticed that …”), followed by an explanation as to why this is a problem and what effects it can have. Next, it is pointed out what could be done differently in the future to be successful.
  2. Respect and empathy
    To be able to express criticism in a truly constructive way, it is first important that it is based on a respectful tone and good empathic skills. If you cannot understand and comprehend your employees’ way of thinking and acting, you’ll find it difficult to think in a solution-oriented way. And only when delivered respectfully can criticism really be used beneficially.
  3. Addressed directly
    Constructive criticism is always expressed in direct dialogue with the employee. If criticism is given via third parties, there is a risk of a “whisper mail” effect and important points of the dialogue may be lost or lose their constructive character. As well as this, letting others do the “dirty work” does not show professionalism, either.
  4. Free from your own feelings
    We already mentioned it above, so just a quick reminder: The critic’s feelings (dissatisfaction, frustration, anger) should be kept out of it. It’s like driving a car—actions in the heat of the moment often lead to accidents. This also applies to body language—if you want to criticise constructively, your body must not express anything aggressive or negative.
  5. Concreteness and precision
    One of the most important basics of giving constructive criticism to employees is concreteness. Vague, general criticism isn’t helpful. Instead, the mistake must be objectified and outlined as precisely as possible. Only where a problem is clearly comprehensible can a solution be found and change brought about.
  6. Based on verifiable facts
    In addition to the previous point, always consider this when giving constructive criticism: It should only be based on verifiable facts, and it must be justified. The criticism should be based on a comprehensive analysis of the situation. This is essential for being able to draw well-founded conclusions.
  7. Timeliness
    The timing of the criticism is also crucial to its success. As a general rule, you should provide criticism as soon as possible after the event has occurred, but never before you’ve properly analysed the situation first. If you provide the criticism too late, there is a danger that employees will be convinced of the correctness of their actions. Criticism that is too impulsive, however, leaves little room for constructiveness.
  8. Situational condition
    The effectiveness of constructive criticism also depends on the situation. Who exactly is being criticised? How will the person take it? Is criticising in front of others OK, or should a private conversation be held? These are all questions that are closely related to the nature of the employee, but also to your corporate and error culture.
  9. Positive formulation
    The goal of constructive criticism is to initiate a learning effect—in other words, something positive. The formulation of your criticism should therefore be positive as well. Without positive formulation, there is no positive outcome.
  10. Integration of goal-oriented advice
    To achieve the desired effect, namely the improvement of an employee’s behaviour or way of working, the criticism should include goal-oriented advice. After all, constructive criticism is characterised by the fact that it also points out solutions on how to improve.

Only those who take all these points into account can be sure that they are offering truly constructive criticism. There is sometimes a fine line, but once you’ve understood the principle, you will quickly get better at giving constructive criticism.

Do bear in mind, though, that for a trusting and appreciative interaction to develop, it takes some practice—even for more experienced managers.

How to effectively give constructive criticism

Evaluations (criticism is ultimately nothing else) tend to make us feel uncomfortable. However, they are a necessary part of the manager-employee relationship. And when correctly placed and skilfully exercised, evaluation has a very positive effect.

Tips for correct use

Even the most experienced managers sometimes have trouble giving genuinely constructive criticism. But enough practice can (almost) make perfect! These tips should make things easier for you over time:

  1. Practice in front of the mirror
    Are you still new to management? Then first try to practice constructive criticism on yourself. Best of all, try it out in front of the mirror. This way, you can put yourself in the position of both the critic and the addressee, and maybe even optimise your empathic skills. Looks goofy? It doesn’t matter, nobody’s there to see it…
  2. Pay attention to body language (must match)
    As already mentioned, feelings should be kept outside. That’s why you should always pay close attention to your posture and gestures. Do you seem annoyed, anxious, tense, or even latently aggressive? If your body still doesn’t say what it should—keep practising! And maybe tip number three will also help you?
  3. Include a short relaxation exercise
    If you’re feeling a bit worked up, perhaps a quick relaxation exercise could help your body reflect what your criticism is meant to express: Benevolence.
  4. Be on the other end
    Relationships are based on give and take. If you’re unsure whether your criticism was helpful, simply turn the tables and receive feedback on your criticism skills. After all, you want to develop yourself as well, right?

Useful examples of when to use constructive criticism

Apart from in everyday professional lives, where else can constructive criticism be beneficial?
For example, in team meetings and application processes:

Team meetings

It always depends on the composition and functionality of your team. But especially in today’s professional world, where encounters increasingly take place at eye level, it can be quite useful to exercise constructive criticism in a group. For example, you can do so in the context of a team meeting or workshop.

Criticism should not come exclusively from you as a leader, but should also be practised between the individual team members. Practise analysing mistakes and situations as a team, and work together to find ways in which everyone could get even more out of themselves.

In the process, your staff will also move closer together as a team, which means you’re simultaneously working on team building as well. Two birds with one stone!

Job interviews

Anyone who has been on the job hunt many times can certainly remember how they felt before, during, and after a job interview. Especially the time after the interview and the uncertainty about success is often very stressful.

A great gesture would be to give constructive criticism already at the end of an interview. This helps candidates to get a better picture of their appearance (nervous or confident, eloquent or shy) and to strive for initial improvements. It also has a positive effect on the candidate experience.

(And, by the way, I can actually confirm this from my own experience. I experienced it this way in my last few interviews and was able to assert myself successfully much more quickly as a result.)

Rejecting an applicant

Recruitment procedures usually consist of several phases in order to be able to narrow down the number of candidates through shortlisting. The further the selection process progresses, the more minimal the differences that ultimately make the difference between a hire and a rejection.

It is particularly important then for the professional advancement of applicants to receive constructive feedback after rejection that encourages and moves them forward.

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