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If you were giving a presentation and unknowingly had spinach stuck in your teeth, would you want someone to tell you? My guess is yes. And yet, why do so many of us shy away from pointing out blind spots to our team when it could spare them embarrassment or failure?
Whether an employee is being perceived as rude by coworkers, submitting subpar work or consistently missing deadlines—your duty as a manager is to help them improve. Chances are, your employee has no idea that they’re doing these things or has no idea how these behaviors are negatively affecting your organization.
To make things easier on you, below are some constructive criticism examples for some common workplace issues. Use these to guide your conversation the next time you need to give someone negative feedback.
But first, let’s go over the benefits of constructive criticism and some tips for giving it.
Sometimes, it may feel like ignoring a person’s shortcomings is kinder than calling them out on them. But Gallup found something surprising in its employee engagement research: Employees who said their managers focused on their weaknesses instead of their strengths were still 22.5 times more likely to be engaged than those who were ignored.
Yes, it seems that any feedback—even negative feedback—is better than none at all. Gallup concludes:
"The best employees don't want to be coddled; they want to matter. They want to be part of something greater than themselves, and they want to know how they contribute to that something. They want to be heard, and above all, they do not want to be ignored."
In a 2014 Zenger Folkman survey, 72% of participants said they believed constructive criticism would improve their performance.
Given its potential to boost job performance, constructive criticism may be preferred over positive feedback. In the Zenger Folkman survey, 57% of participants favored corrective feedback, while only 43% favored praise and recognition.
Specificity is helpful; vagueness is not. So when giving negative feedback, don’t say, “Your work has been lacking lately.” That doesn’t help the employee know the exact behavior that is problematic.
It’s better to say, “Your last three financial reports had major mathematical errors that we had to correct.”
For feedback to be meaningful, it needs to be put into context. What’s at stake here if the person doesn’t change their ways? Make it clear how it’s negatively affecting your team or company, and your employee is much more likely to take it seriously. It’s also possible they didn’t realize how their behavior was hurting the organization.
For example, you might say, “When you turn in reports that have a lot of errors in them, it creates extra work for the people who then have to correct them.”
Giving someone negative feedback without outlining your expectations can create anxiety in the recipient. They know you’re dissatisfied, but they can’t be sure what you want. To avoid this, be clear about what you’d like to see next.
Here’s an example: “In the past month, you’ve made three major decisions regarding this project without consulting your team first. This made them feel like their opinions didn’t matter, and it might have been a missed opportunity to optimize those decisions. Next time you’re making a choice that will impact the entire team and this project, could you please message the group and give them 24 hours to add their input?”
As a general rule, if you’re pointing out a problem, it’s best to offer a solution too. It’s the kind thing to do, especially if you’re a manager in charge of this person.
For instance, if you’re delivering constructive criticism about your direct report’s poor communication skills, offer to sign them up for a communication workshop. Or, if you’ve noticed your team member struggles with time management, offer to review their workflow and provide tips to improve it.
Even if you have the best intentions and follow all of the above tips, your constructive criticism will be ineffective if it’s delivered in a way that’s contrary to the recipient’s communication style.
Within our F4S framework, here are two motivations that can affect how you deliver, and how someone receives, feedback:
Alright, so you’ve seen how useful constructive criticism can be, and you’ve read the tips on giving it. Need some constructive criticism examples to really drive the point home? Here you go!
Not helpful: “You’re always late to work. I think it’s really disrespectful to the rest of us.”
Helpful: “In the past month, there have been about seven days where you weren’t at your desk by 9 a.m. like everyone else. I understand unexpected things happen, but when tardiness becomes frequent, it really puts a damper on team morale. I’m also worried that we’re missing out on your input when you miss our team meetings. Could you please try to make it to the office before 9 so we can make sure you’re included in important discussions?”
Not helpful: “The last few projects you’ve turned in are terrible! What’s going on with you?”
Helpful: “One thing I enjoy about working with you is your attention to detail: Normally, nothing slips by you, and you provide thorough work. It’s because of that that I’m concerned. Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of errors in your code. This is really unlike you, which is why I wanted to point it out. Would you like to share with me what I might be missing? I’d really like to see you double-check your work before turning it in next time.”
Not helpful: “You need to stop slacking off at work. It’s like you’re not even trying anymore.”
Helpful: “Because you’re usually so enthusiastic about your work, it was hard not to notice this change in your attitude lately. You turned the last two projects in late, you haven’t been offering ideas at meetings like you usually do, and yesterday, when Alicia offered some feedback on your latest project, you rolled your eyes. Is there something that’s holding you back from pursuing your work with your usual enthusiasm?”
Not helpful: “You need to be a team player. Why can’t you get along with people?”
Helpful: “We haven’t seen you much lately because you’ve spent the last month entirely to yourself, and during our meetings, you haven’t chimed in at all. I understand needing some alone time to focus on your work, but when it comes to brainstorming and collaboration, we really need what you have to offer. Our projects are suffering without you. Do you think you could spare an extra couple of hours each week for collaboration with the rest of the team?”
Not helpful: “You’re always turning things in late, and your priorities are a mess! You’re wasting time at work, and it’s hurting everyone else.”
Helpful: “Thanks so much for the app design you completed last week—it was fantastic, as usual! I do have one concern, though: It sometimes feels like you get so zoned in on a single project that you let other, more important, ones fall by the wayside. I know you get really enthusiastic about everything you do, but sometimes, we need you to move on from one project and start another one so we don’t miss deadlines. When we miss one deadline, it causes other teams to miss theirs too. How about next time, when you’re not sure if the project is ready to ship, you ask me, and I can give you feedback? That way, you can have an objective outside party judge the work you’ve done.”
Not helpful: “Why don’t you ever say what you mean? We can’t read your mind, you know!”
Helpful: “Ever since we switched to being a fully remote team, I’ve noticed that you don’t respond to my emails, and when you reply on Slack, your messages are very short. For me, it feels like something is wrong, and it’s hard for me to decipher how you’re feeling. The rest of the team is also negatively affected because they aren’t able to get your valuable insights that were so helpful to us back when we were in the office. I understand that this might be due to a difference in communication preferences. What can I do to make it easier for you to speak your mind at work?”
See? Giving feedback, even the negative kind, is nothing to fear! Employees crave it in order to improve their performance, and as long as it’s delivered in a constructive way, they’ll likely be appreciative of it.