Constructive Criticism: What Is It And How to Handle It

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 3, 2020

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“Nobody’s perfect,” as the saying goes, but being reminded of that in the workplace can be a fairly unpleasant experience.

Odds are, you’ve had a manager, co-worker, mentor, teacher, or friend pull you aside and give you some kind of constructive criticism. Maybe you were working too slowly, misunderstood directions, or struggled to work with another team member. In the moment, it’s easy to feel angry, defensive, or even embarrassed.

If you’ve ever given someone else constructive criticism, you know it’s much easier to dish it out than to take it.

Struggling to receive feedback in the form of constructive criticism is entirely human, and you’re not alone if you have this issue. Our natural instinct is to defend ourselves, explain away the issue, or attack whoever criticized us in the first place. However, the rationalization of our behavior will never help us change and improve.

Instead, this article will discuss how to back away from the instinct to be defensive, the most professional and appropriate ways to give someone else criticism, and how constructive criticism can actually help us. The truth is, we need to get over it. We know there’s value in constructive criticism – how else would we identify our weaknesses?

In actuality, learning how to accept constructive criticism helps us maintain professional relationships and be more successful in everything we do.

What Is Constructive Criticism?

By definition, constructive criticism should be fundamentally different than just criticism, as it’s meant to be positive and productive, rather than negative or hostile. When delivered and received correctly, it is helpful to provide feedback that suggests specific, actionable recommendations.

In this way, constructive criticism is particularly helpful because you can put forward specific ways to make positive improvements instead of providing general advice. Constructive criticism can address anything from life skills, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, leadership skills to any other skills employers look for. Ideally, it should be clear, to the point, and easy to put into action.

In the workplace, constructive criticism is often a normal part of communicating with co-workers and can help employees set and achieve their work goals. It can also create a positive atmosphere where co-workers are comfortable asking questions, requesting assistance, and offering their own insights. Given that, companies often consider constructive criticism an improvement strategy for employees, and you shouldn’t be caught off guard by giving or receiving it.

Ultimately, constructive criticism can provide ways for us to better understand ourselves and improve in the workplace and many other aspects of our lives.

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5 Tips for Giving Constructive Criticism

If the idea of giving constructive criticism feels like a nerve-racking minefield, consider these tips to improve the outcome of how your advice is received:

  1. Utilize the sandwich method. This method focuses on providing constructive criticism between specific positive and praising statements. When this strategy is implemented, evaluating a co-worker or employee is more balanced because you can discuss what they’ve done well before moving to the aspects of their performance that need improvement. Then, to complete the sandwich, the critique is concluded with another specific praise.

    With that in mind, the sandwich strategy can be an effective way to deliver actionable feedback to your co-workers or employees. To initiate the method, consider approaching the person you want to talk to privately. Next, open your conversation with praise about a specific success or comment about their work ethic. Starting the conversation on a positive note will make it easier to offer productive advice and plans for improvement.

    Example:

    “I appreciate how quickly you respond to register assistance calls and how efficiently you cash out customers. However, I think we could really use your focus in other areas of the store as well. You’re at the register frequently, and it’d be very helpful if you could do your restroom check up on time. Overall though, thank you for exceptional customer service skills.”

  2. “I” language strategy. Unlike writing high school essays, using “I” in your sentences can be a good strategy when giving constructive criticism. When you use phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” and “I’d suggest,” it not only personalizes your statements but also shows that you’re focusing on a behavior, rather than targeting someone as a person. Further, using “I” reinforces your point of view, letting the other person know how you see the situation.

    Using “I” statements to deliver constructive criticism significantly reduces the chances of miscommunication. Remember that you are the one delivering the critique, so it’s important that you own your statements and personalize your concerns.

    Example:

    “I loved your blueprint for the new city bridge; however, I felt like the blueprint would be clearer if you outlined a more specific rubric.”

  3. Pinpoint the action or behavior. Remember that when you’re giving constructive criticism, it is essential that you focus on the specific action or behavior that you would like to see improve. Don’t go off-topic or be too vague.

    When you’re focusing on a specific improvement you want to see, try using non-specific language such as “the numbers,” “the performance,” or “the project” rather than “your numbers,” “your performance,” and “your project.” Even though it’s crucial for co-workers and employees to accept accountability, driving in that they specifically are doing something wrong may hamper their performance rather than improve it.

    Example:

    “The oven tray was cleaned relatively well; however, it could have been scrubbed longer in the sink.”

  4. Remember to include positive praise. As mentioned previously, you should temper your constructive criticism by offering praise of the person’s productivity, performance, or abilities. This allows them to be aware of the tasks and responsibilities that they perform satisfactorily or above standards, which will make them more open to criticism.

    Ideally, they can then apply those strengths toward improving the areas you’re critiquing.

    Example:

    “The presentation was exceptionally insightful and well made. However, I felt like it could have been more effective if you utilized your skills in Photoshop. The presentation could have benefited from more detailed graphic designs and layouts.”

  5. Provide actionable feedback. Your criticism won’t be constructive if you don’t offer actionable feedback that the person in question can use to improve. Make sure you provide this feedback and consider discussing strategies that both you and the person can use to work toward improvement.

    For instance, if so-and-so is struggling to complete their portion of a project, you could create a daily checklist or spreadsheet to outline urgent tasks. This is an actionable improvement that will hold them accountable for moving through their task lists and making sure expectations are met.

    Example:

    “Although our project is moving forward, you seem to be falling behind and struggling with your tasks. Therefore, I suggest we create a daily checklist to help outline the most urgent tasks.”

Tips on How to Handle Constructive Criticism

Receiving constructive criticism can be even more difficult than dishing it out, so here are some tips on how to have a positive reaction:

  1. Stop your initial reaction. If you’re receiving criticism and feel an adverse reaction coming on, you should stop and calm yourself. Do your best to avoid reacting altogether. Tempering your response will prevent dismissive facial expressions or reactive quips that will have a negative impact on the conversation going forward.

  2. Remember the benefits of constructive criticism. Remember that constructive criticism is meant to help you improve your skills, productivity, and relationships. Remember that accurate and constructive feedback can give you insights you would never have realized otherwise.

  3. Listen and understand. When you’re in the middle of receiving constructive criticism, listen closely. Resist the urge to defend yourself, and instead allow the person to share their complete thoughts without interruption. When they’re done, relay that you understood them by repeating back what you heard. For example, “I hear you saying that you want me to be more welcoming to customers, is that right?”

  4. Say thank you. Saying thank you is a crucial part of being polite. Regardless of your feelings toward the person giving you feedback, you should look them in the eyes and thank them for sharing their constructive criticism with you.

    Don’t be childish with your words either – be deliberate, and say, “I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this with me.” This serves as a way of acknowledging the effort your colleague took to evaluate you and share his or her thoughts.

  5. Deconstruct the feedback by asking questions. To receive more clarity and understand everyone’s perspectives, you should ask follow-up questions. Avoid engaging in a debate; instead, ask questions that will provide more details on how you can improve.

    For example, you can seek specific examples to help you understand the issue, try to understand whether this is an isolated issue, or look for more concrete solutions to address the feedback.

  6. Professionally close the conversation or request time to follow up. After you’ve asked any questions you want to ask, and you feel as though the conversation is coming to a close, you should make a plan going forward. Then, once you articulate that plan and thank the person again for the feedback, you should end the conversation and move on.

    That said, if the issue is going to take some time to address, or this was something presented by your boss, you may want to ask for a follow-up meeting. A follow-up meeting can give you time to process the feedback, seek advice from others, think about solutions, and provide you with a future time to ask more questions and get clarity on your next steps.

Don’t Be Afraid to Grow

Learning the most professional ways to deliver and receive constructive criticism is important because often, it is the only way we learn about our weaknesses. If we get defensive or try to play the blame game, we run the risk of missing out on valuable insight. Remember, feedback’s not easy to give, and it’s certainly not easy to receive, but it helps everyone grow.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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