Constructive Criticism

Develop and maintain Learning Culture

In this workbook, we put together tips and exercises to help you develop your organisation’s learning culture.

Published

Providing feedback is necessary to help employees improve their skills and performance. It is easy to do so when the input is positive, but what do you do if you need to deliver critique or change the employee's behavior?

Delivering critique and discussing areas that need improvement can lead to diminished motivation, negative feelings, and disengagement.

In this guide, you will learn:


What is Constructive Criticism?

Constructive criticism is a form of feedback that focuses on delivering critique and negative feedback constructively and positively to improve performance or behavior.

Constructive criticism is actionable, clear, and beneficial to the recipient. It does not focus solely on the negative aspects. Rather than tearing something down, constructive criticism focuses on improving it.

It contrasts with destructive criticism, which may be either positive in its intent but nonetheless unhelpful, negative and deliberately hurtful, or both.

Constructive criticism does have some common characteristics with constructive feedback. Check out our article to learn more about it.

Managers should offer constructive criticism to avoid offending or discouraging employees while still providing detailed comments on what might be improved. Constructive criticism can encourage employees and provide direction and actionable solutions to the issue of discussion. In addition, it creates a transparent and trustworthy work environment where colleagues can share input without fear of hurting feelings.

Although criticism isn’t always easy to give, it’s necessary to ensure employees are satisfied and have opportunities to learn and grow. In fact, 83% of employees value feedback, positive or negative.

According to Harvard Business Review, when asked what was most helpful in their career, 72% of employees said receiving feedback from their supervisors. Employees want feedback in order to improve, and providing constructive criticism allows managers to provide direction and advice on how to improve.

When is it Appropriate to Use and Why?

Constructive criticism is more valuable in situations when:

  • There has been a violation of rules.
  • When constructive feedback is ineffective.
  • When there is a conflict or an accident, and it needs to be resolved through dialogue rather than avoidance.
  • When constructive criticism is needed to help a person grow their skills.
  • When a behavior is negatively impacting the productivity or morale of others.
  • When a person is not performing as desired and needs guidance AND you know that they are open to constructive criticism and a conversation.
  • When something was agreed upon, but the person did something differently, which led to negative consequences.
  • When you need to have a conversation involving examples of behavior that needs to change instead of just general observations.

Why Does it Need to Be Constructive?

Providing criticism is important, and so is the delivery of it.

It’s important that criticism is constructive, which means that it identifies the specific behavior that needs to be improved in a respectful way. By doing so, the person giving feedback can avoid negative feelings and promote trust.

Research has shown that criticism can increase the motivation and engagement of the receiver when given constructively. On the other hand, poorly given, non-constructive feedback leads to poor engagement and motivation.

Poorly delivered feedback typically results in a dismissive and defensive attitude and long-term effects may include decreased motivation and engagement with future feedback.

Constructive criticism inspires rather than demotivates individuals because it focuses on future progress rather than past wrongs. A 2020 study shows that negative feedback that focuses on past mistakes isn’t as efficient.

Therefore, feedback should not focus on previous performance and the punishment of past failures. Instead, managers should provide constructive criticism and work with the feedback recipient to develop the next steps, opportunities for interesting and worthwhile endeavors, and their vision of what they could achieve.


Examples of Constructive Criticism

1. Criticism regarding low-quality work

Employees may be meeting deadlines, but the work they produce often has mistakes. Mistakes happen, but this could indicate weaknesses in attention to detail. Constructive criticism can help find solutions. Be sure to give specific examples of work and highlight strengths before communicating your concerns.

Here is an example for an employee producing low-quality work:

“I highly appreciate that you always meet deadlines and are passionate about implementing our overall vision in your projects.

However, I have noticed that you've missed some details on your two most recent projects. These details need to be corrected before moving to the next stage.

Let's create a thorough checklist of all your deliverables for your next assignment. Give it a go, then let's follow up and evaluate.”

2. Criticism regarding low productivity

Productivity declines might be caused by personal life changes or disengagement. Addressing the root reason will shift the discourse.

Here is an example for an employee with low productivity:

“I just wanted to check in. I've noticed you've been less productive than usual.

Is there anything I can do to assist you in getting back on track? I want you to be happy.

Let's set aside some time to discuss your objectives and duties and what you need from me to achieve those, so we're all on the same page.”

3. Criticism regarding communication skills

Communication may be difficult when employees are afraid to ask questions or discuss concerns. Set clear expectations and react favorably to updates to encourage strong communication.

Here is an example for an employee who struggles with speaking up about issues they are facing:

"How are you doing with your current project?

If any problems arise, please let me know as soon as possible so that I can assist you in getting back on track.

How about sending me daily updates so I know where we are?"

4. Criticism regarding missed deadlines

Missed deadlines can indicate disorganization or issues with time management. A discussion around the missed deadlines provides an opportunity for learning and professional growth. Be sure to be understanding during this discussion and offer help where you can.

Here’s an example for an employee who is missing deadlines:

"I'm always impressed with your quality of work. However, I've noticed that you've lately missed a few deadlines.

I realize this is a fast-paced environment. I have a few different time-management tactics I can share with you.

But, before we go into that, is there anything, in particular, that's creating these delays?"

5. Criticism regarding lateness and absence

Employees that are chronically late or absent may struggle to self-organize and may already be aware that it's an issue. When discussing this issue, refrain from focusing on the employee. Instead, concentrate on the impact of tardiness or absence on the employee's performance and offer them your assistance.

Here is an example for an employee who is frequently late or absent:

"I've noticed your absence and tardiness at work lately.

I know we all have obligations outside of work, but you risk losing out on a lot of information if you frequently miss meetings.

The last thing I want is for it to hinder your overall performance. So, please let me know if I can assist you with any issues."

6. Criticism regarding problem-solving abilities

When employees lack problem-solving skills, it creates distractions and can throw a project off track. Focus on making the employee feel confident while addressing these concerns. A confident employee feels empowered to take the initiative and solve issues independently.

Here is an example for an employee who is struggling with solving problems:

“You collaborated well with your team last week. You are always a great help during brainstorming sessions.

It would be fantastic to see you use your creativity to solve problems before asking for help.

Try to think of some solutions for 30 minutes before reaching out to anybody else. If this doesn't work, contact me, and we'll figure out the next steps."

7. Criticism regarding a negative attitude

Negative attitudes can create hostile environments. However, negativity can be addressed to help preserve a pleasant work environment and team morale. To avoid creating an even more hostile situation, focus on finding the underlying cause behind the behavior and offer your assistance to overcome it.

Here is an example of constructive criticism for a negative attitude:

"I wanted to follow up on some recent observations. Your interactions with me and others suggest you've been unhappy at work. Is there anything I can do?

In the future, please come to me with any concerns hurting your work-life balance so I can assist in finding a solution.”

8. Criticism regarding issues with collaboration

Employees who avoid collaboration are potentially missing out on growth opportunities. Employees may avoid collaboration due to low confidence. When addressing this concern, highlight that you are impressed by their skills and feel that they could offer value by sharing those skills with other team members.

Here is an example of constructive criticism for collaboration issues:

"I admire you for your resourcefulness and great problem-solving skills.

However, in the case that someone else may need a helping hand, you should show off your skills and aid others by sharing your expertise.

Meanwhile, you may learn more by seeing how others work. Let's set up a weekly team meeting where we can discuss our current projects and do some brainstorming activities."

9. Criticism regarding issues with unprofessional behavior

Unprofessional behavior sometimes stems from seemingly innocent actions. However, behaviors like gossiping can quickly escalate into a situation that decreases employee morale. If you see an employee gossiping or engaging in other unprofessional conduct, discuss it with them one on one.

Here is an example of constructive criticism for unprofessional behaviors:

“I understand your feelings, and I know it seems as if your behavior is harmless.

However, actions like gossiping can foster emotions of workplace mistrust.

Please address future concerns directly to me. When you share them with your coworkers, it creates a culture of fear and negativity.”

10. Criticism during a performance review

Performance evaluations are a great opportunity to assess the team's output. It's also a chance to address any concerns about an employee.

A great way to do this is to ask the employees how they feel about their performance in areas you think need improvement.

Tip: Solicit the employees' opinion on their performance and suggest ways to enhance it. By expanding on what the person says, you may assist them in recognizing their flaws and correcting them.

Here is an example of constructive criticism for an employee during a performance review:

“You mentioned your feelings about the amount of time it takes you to complete a project.

I’ve noticed that you’ve spent a lot of time troubleshooting and problem-solving in past projects. Perhaps this is an area that is slowing you down.

During your next project, try timing how long it takes you to solve an issue that you run into. It may be helpful to limit yourself to an hour of researching the issue, then reach out to the team for help."


Tips on How to Give Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism is more likely accepted if the criticism is timely, clear, specific, detailed, and actionable.

Let’s look at some more specific tips for providing constructive criticism:

1. Be positive

Positive feedback helps employees become more open to constructive criticism, but it should not be the only purpose for offering positive feedback.

For example, if positive feedback is only given to make the negative feedback seem less severe, the positive feedback may no longer be perceived as genuine appreciation but rather as a prelude to bad feedback.

Though constructive criticism itself is not always positive, you should give it with a positive attitude.

2. Provide actionable advice

When providing criticism, give examples of how an employee can improve instead of just focusing on the negative.

Providing actionable advice is the main factor that separates constructive and deconstructive criticism, and it gives the aspect of focusing more on the future than the past.

One way to do this is to set SMART goals. It’s a great way to create goals that are likely to be achieved.

3. Make it a collaborative experience

Constructive criticism is more valuable when there is a give-and-take component.

The person you're giving feedback to may disagree with you. Allow them to question why you feel that way and how they can improve based on your comments.

Making it a collaborative experience can soothe negative feelings from receiving negative feedback because it allows all parties to share their points of view.

4. Focus on the situation rather than the person

Focusing on the situation or behavior rather than the person can help prevent the receiver from feeling personally attacked. Using “I” statements is a great way to do this.

By focusing on your experience, an “I” statement might make comments less personal. By starting every phrase with “I,” you make it clear that you're giving your views and opinions, not facts.

This can ease defensiveness from the employee and make the feedback session more fruitful.

5. Be specific

The more specific, the better.

Don’t make general comments. Instead, describe the concerns in detail and provide examples when possible.

This way, you and your colleagues can communicate effectively, and there are no unanswered questions at the end of the session.

Ambiguous comments can leave the recipient unaware of the whole problem and, therefore, unaware of the proper steps to improve it.

6. Keep the conversation private

The feedback and suggestions could have little to no effect if the receiver feels embarrassed. In fact, it could demotivate and discourage them even more.

It’s best to provide constructive criticism in private where you can have a conversation without feelings of humiliation.

To have the most effective discussion, take the time to sit down and talk. Schedule time for constructive criticism or utilize a one-on-one meeting to do it.

7. Consider the timing

Constructive criticism is helpful if delivered shortly after the action, so you'll both remember the situation. Waiting too long may render your input irrelevant and hence unhelpful.

However, it may not be appropriate to deliver constructive criticism immediately after a big presentation or any situation where the tension or excitement may already be high.

8. Follow up

Indicate your praise for progress made along the way to show you're on their side and invested in their accomplishment. This will also allow the receiver to raise any concerns once they have had time to understand and think about the critique thoroughly.

Positive reinforcement can also help prevent them from relapsing back into old routines.

Develop and maintain Learning Culture

In this workbook, we put together tips and exercises to help you develop your organisation’s learning culture.

About The Author

Ivan Andreev, Senior Associate at Valamis

Ivan Andreev

Senior Associate

Ivan is a Senior Associate at Valamis with over eleven years of experience in online marketing. Right now, he focuses on business development inside Valamis.