Giving constructive criticism: essential but often difficult [checklist]

Wednesday 02 March 2016
Why offering, inviting and accepting constructive criticism is the foundation for a successful career (and business)
Group of people with thought bubbles

When the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi opened his parliament’s recent Budget discussions at the end of February, he surprised many by actively encouraging criticism of his government’s proposals.

"I hope there will be extensive discussion on issues during Parliament's Budget Session,” Modi said to reporters outside the Parliament building. “Let there be strong criticism of government and its shortcoming be highlighted. It will strengthen democracy.”

Inviting, offering and accepting criticism is all too rare at the upper echelons of public and business life.

Leaders seem to feel that criticism might expose mistakes, and that mistakes are unforgivable. But in reality, criticism is more likely to expose flaws, encourage discussion and improve the outcome.

The Financial Times recently sparked a debate about the value of offering constructive critical feedback to new employees, who can otherwise veer off track in their early days of employment.

Another reason for fearing criticism is that, once unleashed, it can easily veer out of control. The New York Times recently explored the negative abuse that can flow from badly managed 360-degree reviews.

“It’s true that 360 reviews can make people aware of undesirable behaviour patterns, like interrupting junior team members mid-sentence and making decisions without consulting others. I have found, though, that those few kernels of objective and helpful observation are often poisoned by other grievances that don’t necessarily have to do with job performance… managers often butcher the delivery of feedback in a way that renders it more injurious than helpful.”

But just because critical messages can often get garbled isn’t a reason not to give them.

A 2013 study based on the Sensitivity to Criticism Test from PsychTests found that those individuals who can handle criticism, with an open mind and willingness to hear the lesson behind the critique, will be happier at their job.

Being observant of how your staff react to criticism is an important attribute for managers because the study also revealed that those who tended to be defensive about criticism are less happy with their job, have low performance ratings and low self-esteem

"If there was an esteem problem, both men and women seemed to block out the 'constructive' part of the equation and only focus on the criticism," explained Doug Mayblum, president of Leadership Explorations and a former financial services executive. "First came the denial of my opinion and too much energy spent on trying to build a case to prove me wrong. Sometimes excuses or blaming others would follow.”

So how do the most effective managers offer and accept constructive criticism?

We’ve drawn on some of the best, latest research to help you navigate these sensitive situations:

1. Be specific and objective

Be specific and objective when giving criticism, ideally providing a suggestion to the staff member regarding what behaviour he/she should do to solve the issue. This feedback must be measurable and immediately actionable.

2. Lean on processes

Use established processes such as performance reviews as ways to deliver constructive criticism aimed at improving long-term performance. Typically done one-to-one, these are a great opportunity for both manager and employee to freely discuss any personal or professional problems affecting their performance, in confidence.

3. Set targets

Set goals and work with employees to create challenging, yet achievable, measurable targets, such as conducting more presentations or meeting more clients. Find ways to boost their qualities and contribution to the company.

4. Focus on new recruits

Although, it may be tempting to go easy on a new member of staff, giving your new employee hands-on training and advice from the very beginning on the behaviour required of them by bosses will avoid workers falling into bad habits early, and will make subsequent performance reviews less daunting.

“Negative impressions of a new hire tend to stick and can be virtually impossible to turn around,” says Professor Michael Watkins of IMD, the Swiss business school. To avoid intimidating the worker, Watkins proposes that bosses be systematic in their method of delivering feedback by having a comprehensive verbal assessment with the individual around the 60-day mark.

“Enough time has gone by for the new person and the organisation to get to know each other but it happens soon enough to catch early indications of trouble,” he said.

By doing this, managers are able to prevent bad practices forming as a habit, saving time and hassle later down the career path when it may be too late to effectively change working practices.