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The Gift of Constructive Criticism

"Help! I hate giving constructive criticism," Emily confessed to me during our conversation last week. Emily is a member of the Leadhership1® Coaching Program. She's a highly respected, self-confident leader who feels comfortable in most aspects of her job, but not this one.

After talking with Emily, I realized that I wanted to document our conversation because her concerns represent the concerns of so many other women leaders. Delivering constructive criticism is not easy for even the most experienced leaders.

First and foremost, I assured Emily that she is not alone. Many leaders (both men and women) dread giving negative feedback to people. It's probably why many managers opt-out of doing it. They feel that by pointing out weaknesses in a person's performance they are being punitive or non-supportive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Constructive criticism is a gift that you give someone, and without this gift, none of us would achieve our full potential. I owe much of my own professional success to the bosses, mentors, co-workers and colleagues who cared enough to point out my weaknesses, even when the message stung.

Think about the best teachers that you've ever had. Were they the teachers who made everything easy for you, or were they the teachers who challenged you to try harder and be smarter than you thought you could be? I'm certain it's the latter. The same is true for bosses and mentors. The great bosses and mentors stretch us. They dangle a carrot just outside our current reach and challenge us to go after it. They are the first to help us celebrate when we finally reach it.

The easy way out of conducting a performance review is to tell your employees that they are doing a great job. They leave happy, you leave happy. Right? Wrong. Sugar coating a performance review is an opportunity wasted. You waste the opportunity to inspire and challenge people and that's what great leaders do – they challenge and inspire people to go beyond what people often imagine for themselves.

I admit that most people do not embrace constructive criticism at the time that it's delivered, and that can make for an uncomfortable situation. It's part of our human nature to feel hurt or defensive when someone is telling us that we can do better. But the truth is that we can all do better. It is the responsibility of a good leader to identify those areas of growth or improvement and communicate them to employees. Great leaders relish the chance to do so!

During a performance review, I suggest that you strike a balance between strengths and areas of improvement.

  • Challenge yourself to tell a person three positive things about her performance and one area in need of improvement. Don't overload people with information. Once they hear the negative thing they may start to shut down, so leave the negative thing for the end of the conversation. Repeat the three positive things again to end the performance review on a positive note. If a person has many areas in need of improvement, consider delivering the message over multiple meetings. It's hard for anyone to digest several pieces of negative information all at once.
  • Challenge yourself to stick by your feedback even if the person gets emotional or angry. You are not doing the person any favors by recanting your feedback once a situation get uncomfortable. A performance review is not a debate. Do not engage in one. Have examples to support your opinions and then stick by them.

Take Away Advice:The secret to getting comfortable with giving constructive criticism is to re-frame the way you think about the message you are delivering. If you think of the message as punitive, it will be punitive. But if you think of it as a gift, it will be a gift. The best leaders take joy in giving the gift of constructive criticism, and the best employees take joy in receiving it.

I loved this piece! It was very well timed given we are in the midst of performance reviews. Excellent advice!

Submitted by Alison Place on Mon, 02/21/2011 - 11:51.