Criticism with Care: How to Give Constructive Feedback
So your intern hasn’t been performing up to standards. What’s the best way to address their poor performance? Well, you’ve got a few options.
You could give them a dose of tough love—call them out, berate and insult them. You could slip your criticisms in subtly by “sandwiching” them between compliments. Or you could be direct and up-front with your intern.
Research shows that the last approach tends to be the most effective.¹ But how, exactly, should you apply this approach? What does it mean to give successful constructive criticism? Let’s examine how psychology answers these questions.
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Types of Feedback
First, we need to establish what it means to give feedback. There are three main types of feedback: destructive criticism, constructive criticism, and praise.
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Destructive criticism is hurtful, condescending, and insulting.² Its goal is to tell you what you did wrong, rather than how to improve.³ It may include implicit or explicit threats intended to generate fear.⁴
For managers and supervisors, it’s tempting to believe that these threats and insults are sometimes necessary. And it feels good to air out your frustrations over difficult employees. But don’t fall into this trap! Destructive criticism is toxic to the worker-supervisor relationship. It degrades trust and makes employees feel worthless and incompetent.⁵ They’ll assume that it’s hopeless for them to improve their performance—they’re inherently incapable.⁶
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What makes constructive criticism different? Instead of focusing on the employee’s faults, it concentrates on what can be improved in the future.⁷ The criticizer approaches the discussion in a caring, respectful way, and expresses confidence in the employee’s ability to make changes.⁸
By orienting feedback around future directions rather than past mistakes, constructive criticism promotes self-efficacy.⁹ Criticism receivers feel capable and motivated to do better, knowing that the giver believes in their abilities.¹⁰ It’s the ideal form of feedback for improving long-term workplace performance.
We’ll return to constructive criticism in a second, but let’s consider the last category of feedback.
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Praise can be a great thing. It certainly boosts your spirits to receive approval from your bosses! But it needs to be used sparingly. Depending on the task, giving too much praise can actually harm performance.
For example, one study found that people performed worse on skill-based tasks after receiving praise.¹¹ The praise drew attention to the fact that their performance was being monitored; they felt self-conscious and anxious, making them less effective at complex tasks.¹² But on effort-based tasks, praise tended to improve performance.¹³ Subjects were already confident in their ability to perform these tasks, so positive feedback motivated them to put in more effort.¹⁴
Giving Effective Criticism
Constructive criticism is both the most complex and the most important type of feedback. How do we make sure we’re giving it effectively? Here are some scientifically-supported tips for improving feedback methods in your workplace.
Fong et al. (2018)
- Be aware of tone and body language.¹⁵ It’s important to make the criticism receiver feel comfortable. Make it clear that you’re not trying to be confrontational by keeping your facial expression and posture relaxed. It’s okay to speak firmly and with conviction, but avoid sounding angry or intimidating.
- Keep it short and sweet.¹⁶ Don’t hit the receiver with a huge list of critiques at once! This can be overwhelming, or make them feel defensive.¹⁷ And avoid “sandwiching” your criticism between praises to try to soften the blow.¹⁸ This only makes you seem disingenuous and devalues praise in the long run.¹⁹ Stick to the point, and be straightforward.
- Focus on the future.²⁰ Offer concrete, specific tips for improving future performance.²¹ Express confidence in the receiver’s abilities, and offer encouragement.²² The receiver should walk away knowing exactly what they need to change, and feeling empowered to do so.²³
- Take time to listen.²⁴ Effective feedback isn’t a one-sided conversation! Allow the receiver to respond to your critiques, give explanations, and ask clarifying questions.²⁵ Be careful not to micromanage, but make sure to check in regularly to ensure that they understand what you expect of them.²⁶
Promoting Feedback Literacy
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Cultivating a feedback-friendly workplace isn’t only about giving good criticism. It’s also about how well employees receive criticism. This is where feedback literacy comes in.
Feedback literacy describes the ability to understand and implement the feedback they receive.²⁷ Feedback-literate workers can use criticisms to self-evaluate their performance and plan how to improve.²⁸
It doesn’t matter how good we are at giving constructive criticism if our employees don’t know how to use it. Fortunately, there are many programs available to help workplaces become feedback-literate. Studies have shown that such programs enhance employees’ understanding of feedback, and even make them more likely to actively seek feedback.²⁹
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Constructive feedback is an essential process within any successful business. It’s important to integrate constructive-criticism practices into workplace norms. Continuously giving and receiving feedback makes us more productive, goal-oriented, and self-aware.
Fong, C. J., Schallert, D. L., Williams, K. M., Williamson, Z. H., Warner, J. R., Lin, S., & Kim, Y. W. (2018). When Feedback Signals Failure but Offers Hope for Improvement: A Process Model of Constructive Criticism. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 30, 42-53. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2018.02.014
Ge, J., Tian, Y., & Zhang, X. (2016). The Subordinate's Side of the Story: The Practice of Contextual Components in Constructive Criticism. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 11, 29-47. doi:10.1016/j.lcsi.2016.04.002
Raver, J. L., Jensen, J. M., Lee, J., & O'Reilly, J. (2012). Destructive Criticism Revisited: Appraisals, Task Outcomes, and the Moderating Role of Competitiveness. Applied Psychology, 61(2), 177-203. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2011.00462.x
Fong et al. (2018)
Ge et al. (2016)
Fong et al. (2018)
Baumeister, R. F., Hutton, D. G., & Cairns, K. J. (1990). Negative Effects of Praise on Skilled Performance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 11(2), 131-148. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1102_2
Hughes, R., Kinder, A., & Cooper, C. L. (2019). Constructive Criticism and Managing Rejection. In The Wellbeing Workout (pp. 21-27). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-92552-3_4
Von Bergen, C. W., Bressler, M. S., & Campbell, K. (2014). The Sandwich Feedback Method: Not Very Tasty. Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, 7.
Hughes et al. (2019)
Noble, C., Sly, C., Collier, L., Armit, L., Hilder, J., & Molloy, E. (2019). Enhancing Feedback Literacy in the Workplace: A Learner-Centred Approach. In Augmenting Health and Social Care Students’ Clinical Learning Experiences (Vol. 25, Professional and Practice-Based Learning, pp. 283-306). Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-05560-8_13