Nearly 16,000 managers were surveyed in two separate studies by leadership development consultancies, one by Zenger and the other by Folkman. It might come as a shock to you that 44% of the managers responded that they find the act of giving feedback stressful, especially when it is negative. One-fifth of the managers avoid it entirely, which raises the question if our employees aren’t giving 100% to their work, can we, as managers, be at fault? Imagine dealing with an unproductive, unpunctual and irresponsible employee on your team who hasn’t been told about these traits yet. Picture him/her coming up to you and asking you for a raise? Shocking as it may seem, it is you who is at fault for not ever pointing out the worst.

Criticism, like evaluations, is an important aspect of being a manager. As managers, it is imperative that we understand the importance of giving and receiving feedback. Feedback, especially constructive feedback, is a respectful way of helping employees better themselves. It is a means of guiding them with honesty, directness, and dignity while not damaging their feelings and ego. When delivered in the right manner, it doesn’t create uneasy spaces within the four walls of the office but rather strengthens interpersonal bonds, which ultimately boosts the productivity and efficiency of employees.

The majority of managers find it hard to offer constructive criticism when it comes to pointing out areas of improvement. They struggle with finding the right balance between advising and criticizing, they fear their words might hurt the feelings of their employees, they worry if it will negatively impact their productivity by demoralizing them, etc.

But here’s a fact—you are going to have to get comfortable delivering constructive criticism. Really, really, really comfortable! Although it is hard enough to deliver it to anyone, it is the hardest when giving it to someone who always gets on your nerves or to an underperforming employee. To say the least, such situations require mastering the art of giving constructive criticism.

Therefore, in this article, together we shall learn how to give constructive criticism in a way that doesn’t hurt the receiver’s feelings as well as learn the differences between constructive and non-constructive criticism and how to use empathy to improve the impact of the criticism.

Understanding the Difference Between Constructive and Non-Constructive Criticism

The primary concern with giving constructive criticism lies in knowing what it is and more importantly, what it is not. Confused? Let us put it more directly. Not all the feedback you give is constructive in nature. Sometimes, your words, expressions, and actions can depict a story completely different from what you believe. You might think you are just advising someone to improve, but they might take offense to the language, expressions, or actions used. Faulting someone without the use of appropriate language and actions can seem disrespectful and aggressive—thus, it comes out as non-constructive criticism.

Not all criticism is constructive, however. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between constructive and non-constructive criticism, whether you’re giving or receiving it. So, what really is constructive and non-constructive or destructive criticism and how do we differentiate between the two?

Constructive criticism is the practice of instilling confidence in the employee by gracefully and tactfully pointing out the areas that need improvement, only so that they can develop professionally on the job. Think of it as an art teacher evaluating the work of one of his students and telling him that although the art is brilliant as it is, there is still room for improvement. The ultimate goal is to encourage the student without putting him down or making him feel unvalued or bad. When feedback is perceived in this manner, the receiver doesn’t feel like a complete failure and stays focused on betterment. The receiver feels like he/she is on the right track and just needs to put in more effort to become a master. 

Conversely, non-constructive feedback or criticism aims at belittling the employee and insulting them outright. It is a practice used to put down someone and hurt their feelings. Instead of telling the employee that they are good as they are and just need to work on some areas of their work, a manager who criticizes destructively would say something like, “That was one terrible performance. I am so ashamed of you. I should have chosen someone else to do it. This was a total waste of time.” Now, if you notice, this type of feedback lacks two things. First, it labels the employee a complete failure and second, it doesn’t emphasize the areas where the employee needs to improve. The employee just knows that he made a complete fool of himself but doesn’t know how to rectify it. What is the end result? An employee leaving the room feeling defeated without knowing how he could have improved his work. 

To further differentiate between the two, here are the key differences to take note of and self-assess on. What have you been labeling as constructive criticism? Do you need to update your approach? 

In constructive criticism, the focus is on the present situation. The feedback given is only for something presented or done at the moment. When opting to critique someone constructively, ensure that the feedback relates to just one situation. That way, the receiver won’t feel like they are being critiqued for being a failure as an employee but rather over something they did poorly. Constructive feedback isn’t offered for something done in the past. Otherwise, it isn’t constructive. 

Destructive or non-constructive feedback often focuses on past errors. It usually implies that the person is not fit for any task whatsoever and is thus demeaning. It sounds something like, “Are you going to repeat the same blunder again?” or “I hope this is better than the last report you sent me.” Such statements are condescending to the receiver and makes them feel devalued and disrespected. Why? Because they might have worked extremely hard this time, putting their very soul into her work, and your attitude and words can really hurt them. 

The language used in constructive feedback isn’t judgmental. The receiver shouldn’t feel like they are being judged or objectified. Therefore, the use of objective language is crucial when giving constructive feedback. You should only state the facts or things observed. The employee shouldn’t feel evaluated negatively on something personal.

Non-constructive feedback is usually accompanied by personal insults and invectives. It is more about the personality of the individual and less about their faults. An example of this will look something like, “You are clearly clueless about what was asked of you. I am highly disappointed with what you have put forward. I guess it isn’t in you.”

This is a clear affront and this kind of feedback is definitely demotivating. Thus, be objective and only pinpoint the mistakes rather than attacking an employee’s work ethic. 

Additionally, constructive feedback is usually specific. It addresses the fault where it lies without beating about the bush. It is a direct and straightforward way of telling the employee where she lacked and thus, where she needs to improve. At the end of it, the receiver walks out knowing exactly what she needs to work on and what actions will help her improve. 

Non-constructive criticism is usually vague. It isn’t aimed directly at the problem. As a consequence, it leaves the receiver confused. It happens when managers feel shy or cautious about saying their views out loud. Therefore, they expect the receiver to take note and rectify the concerns on their own. However, this can further exacerbate the problem as both the giver and receiver might end up on completely different pages. Therefore, when giving feedback constructively, try to highlight points that need addressing and upgrading without being indirect about it. The more candid you are, the higher the chances of improvement. 

Now that you are familiar with the distinctions between the two, the next step is to learn how to critique constructively. 

Managers Take Note: Giving Constructive Criticism

No one likes to be criticized, no matter who the critic is. This is one reason why it is important to master the art of critiquing. As a manager or supervisor, chances are you will come across several situations where your word and observation about employee performances will be in question. So how do you go about critiquing someone constructively?

Here are some unspoken rules to abide by to ensure that by the time you are done giving your feedback, your employee’s face doesn’t reflect defeat or exasperation.

Do It One-on-One

The first unsaid rule is to never publicize. Even praises can leave awkward silences; criticism is a different story altogether. Whenever you find yourself in such a situation where feedback is required, summon the receiver for a one-on-one meeting. Not everyone likes to be the center of attention. A one-on-one meeting will feel more comfortable for both you and your employee. Besides, it isn’t a parade but rather personal feedback and thus should be provided in a calm and comfortable setting.

Choose the Right Time

Time and place matters as well. If you sense that the employee is already down or frazzled about their performance, there is no need to further embarrass them then and there. Your feedback can wait a day or two when they are in the right frame of mind and seem motivated to improve.

Take It Slow

It is best not to blurt everything out in one outburst. Remember, your goal is to help your employees overcome their shortcomings and not lose all their remaining self-confidence. Too much feedback given at one time can intimidate the employee. Pick one or two issues to talk about at max and leave the rest for another time and another day.

Sandwich It!

If you have been providing constructive criticism (even when doing it wrong), you might have come across the sandwich method once or twice. This is a popular technique to offer constructive feedback without hurting the feelings of employees. This eliminates the guilt and embarrassment that an employee might feel when called out for their mistakes. Here’s how you can use it to structure your feedback appropriately.

Start on a positive note by talking about the good things that the employee does/did. Then, slide in the parts that can be improved. Finally, end on a hopeful yet positive note. This doesn’t demean the receiver, they don’t lose their confidence in themselves, and they are better able to apply your comments toward self-improvement. 

Be a Good Listener

The communication between the critic and the receiver should be two-way. You must also listen to your employee’s reasons for the particular blunder, especially if it has occurred repeatedly. Ask probing questions about why the employee behaves or acts in a certain way. Try to understand his point of view, hear out his concerns, and then advise accordingly. Seek suggestions on what he thinks would be the best solution to overcome it. Discuss if training or counseling is required, etc. 

Offer Clarity

Explain what went wrong. Avoid implying dual meaning or complex messages. If there is something that your employee needs to work on, let them know that clearly. Offering clarity should be the ultimate goal of any form of feedback so that it is understood by the receiver. Mixed messages, especially the ones with a “but” in between them can be confusing. For instance, starting a sentence with praise and then using but before coming to the actual point can create a contradiction. The employee will have a nanosecond to wipe that expression of pride from her face as you finish the sentence. When you link praises and faults with words like “but,” “however,” or “although,” the receiver hears: “Don’t believe a word of what I just said before. Here’s how you messed up!”

Be Empathic

Express your concern so that the employee doesn’t feel demeaned. Show them that the reason you are highlighting these issues is so you can help them improve and you really wish to see them improve. A tone of concern paired with the right gestures and words adds a certain amount of sincerity. Ensure that the content of the feedback isn’t lost in sarcasm, anger, disappointment or frustration. Be considerate and let them know that you care. 

Avoid Pointing Fingers

Focus on the situation, issue, or behavior. Criticize the work, rather than the individual. Focus on the observable facts and state them gracefully, without making the employee feel under scrutiny. Explain your point of view instead of just pointing out the faults. Don’t state things like, “You are always late. Why can’t you be punctual?” Instead say something like this, “When you are late, everyone worries. It delays our rehearsals and the event starts late. Please try to be on time so that everything runs smoothly as we planned.”

Even though this is criticism, it isn’t blunt or degrading. It is purely stating the facts using appropriate words that don’t come off as bossy. 

End with Words of Encouragement

Avoid going over past mistakes as your closing statement. Ensure that the employee has received the feedback without feeling defensive or disheartened. If there is something that needs fixing, ensure that it is talked about in detail at the start of the conversation or during the middle of it. Ending on a negative note will leave the employee demotivated and all the stage-setting will be of no use. Chances are, they will only remember the discouraging words and forget everything else. It is like telling someone, “Thank you for coming, but I wished you hadn’t!”

How Empathy Improves Employee Reactions to Constructive Criticism

Feedback coming from someone dear is always welcomed and appreciated. In fact, criticism can be the best gift for someone you love. However, since workplaces require a more professional and controlled attitude, there can be little room for relational investment. This is one reason why criticism, be it positive or negative, is often received as an insult. 

But this practice can and should be revised. Empathy should be a primary tool to use when critiquing someone’s work. Time and again, it has proven effective. Employees respond to constructive criticism better when they feel that their manager or boss is a well-wisher and really wishes to see them improve and prosper. Empathic concern kickstarts positive changes and ripples throughout the firm. 

It is important that you, as a manager, are emotionally intelligent to give feedback with empathy. When done right, it can result in drastic changes in improvement, efficiency, productivity, and the overall state of mind of your employees. It will inspire instead of degrading them, motivate instead of discouraging them, and foster trust instead of threatening. A lack of empathy on the manager’s part can create dissonance. Organizations, where feedback is given in a degrading manner and without empathy can never flourish since the employees will never feel motivated and inspired to work their best. 

The impact of empathic concerns when giving negative feedback has been illustrated powerfully in a study of 177 people who participated via an online marketplace, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. During the study, a video-based scenario was presented. In the first half of the video, the recruited people were shown a manager giving negative criticism to his employees. All the participants watched the same video at first. 

In the second part of the experiment, half of the participants were shown the remaining half of the video where the same manager showed empathic concern in the end and the other half watched the manager continue giving feedback without any empathic concerns.

Later the participants were asked a set of questions and expressed their views on the performance of the manager. The findings suggested that leaders who showed empathic concern while giving feedback were perceived as good bosses. Their style was rated more highly and more effective in terms of helping the employee improve. It was also revealed that when leaders showed empathic concern, the emotional reactions of the employees were less demotivated and more hopeful. The leader who showed empathic concern in the video was viewed as more promotable as well. 

The bottom line is that your most direct path to success as a team leader comes through clear, caring constructive criticism. It’s simply worth the time and effort to address the faults of your employees in supportive and positive ways!

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