Regardless of your role, level, or industry, at some point in your career, you'll most likely need to know how to give constructive feedback in the workplace. While this is especially true if you manage others, you might also be called on to give this feedback to peers or team members when working on projects with multiple contributors to ensure that the group's output is ultimately successful. However, giving constructive criticism can be easier said than done - it's something that many people find challenging, and can be tricky to do well. Here are some of the top ways to give constructive feedback in a productive, respectful way.
Giving Constructive Feedback
If you are working with someone regularly and know you will at some point need to give feedback to them, whether as part of your job duties (as a manager or supervisor) or simply due to the nature of your work together (as team members or colleagues), it's important to establish an open, trusting relationship with them. Having a baseline of trust will help set the tone of your future conversations, and will both help you deliver your feedback, and help them accept it and put your suggestions to use. It's very difficult to accept feedback or criticism from someone you do not trust to have your best interests at heart - you want the receiver to truly know that, first and foremost, you recognize their abilities, believe in their potential, and appreciate their work. This means they'll be more likely to view your feedback as constructive, and will further open communication channels to make this kind of exchange even easier and more productive in the future.
Balance the Positive and the Negative
When giving constructive criticism, it's important to make sure you're presenting a balanced perspective, whether your feedback is ultimately positive or negative. This is more obvious when it comes to negative feedback - while you shouldn't have to feel like you must paint a picture that's different from the reality of the situation, especially if you have major concerns about the work or behaviors being discussed, it's helpful to be able to point out some positives in that person's attitude or output. For example, if a specific project doesn't meet your expectations, you could frame the conversation by saying how you've been impressed with the individual's work in the past, which is why you know that this deliverable could be improved. Again, you want to be truthful - don't mislead someone into thinking their performance is better than it actually is - but giving someone a few positives to help motivate them can go a long way.
When it comes to positive constructive criticism, you want to make sure that you give the person you're addressing some things to think about or work on, to help them feel like they still have room to grow and surpass expectations. If a piece of work is excellent, simply providing a few suggestions, such as "have you thought about adding in information about X?" or "perhaps this point on Y could be expanded to include some of the details that emerged in last week's meeting," or even giving ideas on ways the project could be built upon in future work, can be very helpful. You should also tell them what it was about the work that was so good - be specific! High-performing individuals tend to like having goals to strive for, so simply telling someone something is great without giving them something new to work towards or what elements they can focus on replicating in the future can be frustrating for them.
Observe, Don't Interpret
Don't assign meaning or intent to someone else's actions until you've had a chance to hear what they have to say. Present issues as things you are observing, and give them the opportunity to explain their perspective.
One of the best ways to give constructive feedback is to focus on specifics. Telling someone that their work needs improvement, but not giving details on what exactly is lacking or how it might be fixed, isn't helpful to anyone - the individual won't know what you're looking for, so they'll be frustrated and you most likely will not get the results you hoped for. Again, bringing in both positives and negatives can be key here. For example, telling someone that the structure of their presentation is strong, but is missing key information on a specific topic is a good way to help someone feel good about what they've done so far, and give them the specific instruction they need to bring it up to par. This goes for positive feedback, too: instead of just saying "great job" or "nice work," give a meaningful compliment that shows that you really took the time to observe their work and that you truly appreciate their contribution.
Whenever possible, it is almost always better to deliver constructive criticism in face-to-face meetings rather than via email, instant messenger, or phone. All of these technologies, while useful in other situations, are much more open to misinterpretation, because they eliminate important context such as vocal tone, body language, and emotional inflection (such as humor or concern). It's easy to read negativity into a statement that was meant as neutral, or to dismiss the importance of an issue that has serious consequences, when you're not talking in-person. Face-to-face conversations also are more dynamic, as both parties can ask questions and dig deeper into the issues at hand.
Don't Make it Personal
When giving constructive criticism, it's important to remember to distinguish a person from their actions. Focus on the issue at hand, whether it's a pattern or performance on a specific project, without making broader claims about who they are (for example, telling someone that you noticed some errors in a recent report, so they should take the time to proofread their work going forward versus telling them that they lack attention to detail or are a careless writer). If it feels like a personal attack, the individual will be more likely to shut down and lose trust in you than to listen to what you have to say.
Provide Feedback Consistently
Obviously, frequency will vary depending on how much interaction you have with the individual you are giving constructive criticism to, but making feedback a regular part of your conversations and meetings will go a long way. That means that you will both be on the same page in terms of expectations and performance, and that when something more significant comes up performance-wise, you'll be better prepared to deliver the necessary feedback, and they'll be better prepared to receive it.
Don't let days or weeks pass by before you give someone feedback on their work, especially when it comes to a specific project. You want the work to be fresh in both their minds and yours, so that the conversation will be relevant and actionable, and any context (such as challenges that came up during the work, what the process looked like, and ideas that emerged for future work) will still be top of mind.
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