Constructive criticism is an approach of providing feedback that offers clear and actionable advice without offending the receiver. Such criticism drives the person to take action towards improvement instead of finding reasons to explain poor behavior.
Who provides constructive criticism?
The moment you hear the word “criticism”, you assume it’s a manager’s job. You believe that unless you’re in a leadership position, it does not apply to you.
But that’s not true.
Each one of us offers advice all the time. For example:
- A mother teaches good manners to her children
- An outgoing teenager advises his shy friend on how to talk to women
- An adult explains the importance of maintaining a healthy marriage to a long time friend
Providing feedback and criticism applies to you, whether you’re a manager or not. Even if you consider the above examples informal, knowing how to provide constructive criticism can help you build a stronger influence with the people around you.
In this article, we’ll go through the differences between constructive and destructive criticism. I’ll share the best practices that’ll make people listen to your advice with an open mind and act towards improvement.
- What is constructive criticism?
- What are the differences between destructive and constructive criticism?
- How to give constructive criticism:
- 1. Provide criticism to improve
- 2. Don’t provide feedback when you’re emotionally triggered
- 3. Isolate the person from the incident
- 4. Be clear about what needs to change
- 5. Mention only pointers that can be changed
- 6. Know the background
- 7. Provide feedback only on your area of expertise
- 8. Feedback Sandwich
- 9. Keep it face to face
- 10. Time it right
What is constructive criticism?
Constructive criticism is a way of providing feedback that focuses less on complaining and more on improvement. The person providing such criticism has the best intentions and offers advice for the betterment of the receiver, though the feedback isn’t always pleasant to hear.
Destructive criticism is the opposite where one points out mistakes in another person to demoralize him/her without any good intent. People providing such feedback highlight errors, and assault personal characteristics without offering any actionable advice. Such words undermine the efforts and cripple the self-esteem of the recipient.
What are the differences between destructive and constructive criticism?
|Destructive Criticism||Constructive criticism|
|Complains about mistakes without offering any lessons for the future||Points out mistakes, but also offers corrective advice for improvement|
|Assaults character flaws in the person||Separates the person from the incident and only speaks about the erroneous behavior|
|The tone used is angry/frustrated/condescending||The feedback is given in a calm tone, irrespective of how the recipient reacts|
|Counterattacks any defense offered by the receiver||Listens carefully and processes any disagreement without arguing|
|Makes the receiver angry, offended, defensive, or vengeful||Helps the receiver become a better person|
|Given with intention of hurting, insulting, or undermining the receiver||Given with positivity for the betterment of the receiver|
How to give constructive criticism:
Now that the differences between the two types of criticism are clear, let’s explore the crux of the topic – how do you offer constructive criticism.
Before you go through the tips, keep in mind that not everyone responds to feedback with an open mind even if you have the best intentions, and nail every last aspect of the delivery. Some remain in denial, turn on their defenses, and argue with every point you make. But, don’t let a few poor reactions stop you from offering constructive criticism the next time.
So, let’s go through the 10 tips to provide effective feedback along with example sentences.
1. Provide criticism to improve
Whether your criticism is constructive or destructive starts from your purpose. If you intend to hurt the other person, no matter how well you sugar coat your words, your feedback can never be constructive. You’d be better off arguing than disguising your motive as constructive feedback.
If you offer criticism without any intention to help the person improve, you’re only complaining. Do the other person a favor and keep such thoughts to yourself.
2. Don’t provide feedback when you’re emotionally triggered
When things go wrong due to another person’s mistake, the anger within you will shoot up like mercury on a thermometer. When you’re enraged, your body undergoes physiological changes. Your brain cannot think straight and therefore, you say and do things that your normal self wouldn’t.
In such situations, hold yourself back from providing the feedback then and there. When you provide criticism under stressful circumstances, your words will turn bitter, your body language will turn aggressive and the recipient will turn panic-stricken.
Instead, wait for a better time when you are calm and the other person is composed. Talk about the incident, the mistakes committed, lessons learned, and action items for the future. Not only will the recipient respond to your advice with positivity, but will also respect you for your patience.
3. Isolate the person from the incident
The moment you attack a person’s characteristics, you hurt their ego and offend them. If Harry made a mistake, don’t talk about Harry’s traits, but only talk about the behavior.
Talk about the events that transpired or the outcome that occurred instead of talking about personal attributes.
Let’s take an example where an employee presented a report of poor quality. You as the manager have to offer feedback.
Wrong feedback: “You have poor presentation skills and a weak eye for design. The colors are off and the spacing is a nightmare.”
Such words hurt emotions because you’re pointing at the person, not the behavior or action.
Constructive feedback, “The report you prepared wasn’t up to the mark. I’d suggest you use lighter colors and add more spacing between lines.”
Such feedback highlights the same mistakes but focuses on what was done instead of throwing filth on the person’s skills. The difference is subtle and you may need a second look to understand the contrast. But once you do, people will turn more receptive to your advice, especially when you use constructive criticism in the workplace
4. Be clear about what needs to change
Here is a typical conversation in the corporate world, especially during the appraisals.
The manager rates the employee met expectations and says, “You need to do more”. But, how do you define ‘more’? Most employees don’t ask that question and even those would do receive a convoluted reply.
When you’re providing feedback, you need to have clear and specific areas for improvement. Does that mean you have to handhold people and spoonfeed every minute detail? Not at all. If you want to challenge people to figure things out on their own, explain the expected result and let them find how to get there. But, if you want to set a high bar for people without explaining what or how you’ll leave them stranded.
Watch out for words such as
If you use such words in your feedback, you must provide further details. If you leave things vague, you’ll leave the recipient confused.
5. Mention only pointers that can be changed
The golden rule of constructive criticism is to provide feedback only when it can drive change. If the timing is too late to make amends, don’t bother offering your advice because it serves no good.
Let’s say you meet a friend at a wedding. Though she has a fantastic dressing sense, on that particular evening, she’s worn a dress that doesn’t fit her well.
Now, what’s the point in telling her, “You should have worn a tighter dress”? The groom and the bride have said “I do” already and neither does she have a spare dress to change into nor the time to shop for a new one. By telling her that the dress doesn’t fit her well, you only ruin her mood for the entire event. Yes, your intentions are good and your advice is clear, but at the juncture, it serves no purpose.
If you want the person to avoid a similar mistake the next time, you can talk about it the day after the wedding ceremony.
6. Know the background
Before you provide feedback, take into account the circumstances of the recipient, like level of knowledge, obstacles encountered, and the personality of the person. Different people will have different perspectives and not every time is the right action etched in stone. You and the recipient can have opposite opinions and benchmarks making you both right in your own separate ways.
Here are a few examples of incorrect feedback:
A manager to a new developer:
Your performance was not on par with the rest of the team.
Such feedback is incorrect if you’re comparing a junior resource with other team members who have experience
An extrovert to an introvert:
You need to socialize more instead of spending time by yourself.
An introvert does not enjoy spending time as a group. Even though you believe every person must socialize, your perspective is shaped by your personality. The right measure of how much one person must engage with another is subjective.
One friend to another:
You need to be straightforward when you disagree. How else would people know?
Just because you’re assertive and candid, doesn’t mean everyone operates the same way. Some prefer to keep disagreements to themselves and find an alternate way to make things work.
7. Provide feedback only on your area of expertise
You would have heard a bold claim like, “This politician is stupid. If I were the President, I would have …”
Unless you have experience in administration, you’re not qualified to make that judgment because you don’t know enough about the subject.
Often, people provide feedback with only surface-level knowledge of the topic. Here are a few examples:
- “That business idea will fail because …” says the person who has never attempted entrepreneurship before.
- “To live a happy married life you need to…” says the bachelor to his married friend
- “Your website needs a more colorful layout,” says the person who has no experience in web design or user experience
Such feedback stems from ignorance, lacks substance, and even leads the recipient in the wrong direction. Therefore, provide constructive criticism only on the areas you have sufficient knowledge on. Don’t be a know it all who has an opinion on every last thing on earth.
That said, don’t stop yourself from providing people ideas. But, be watchful of your criticism when you don’t know the subject because often enough certain things are performed in certain ways for reasons which are beyond your grasp.
8. Feedback Sandwich
A well-known technique to make people more receptive to feedback is to use the sandwich method. Different professionals use the same approach in different industries too. For example, customer service representatives use the compliment sandwich to inform their users about any unwelcome news.
As per the technique, you place the negative element between two positives. For the feedback sandwich, you begin with a compliment, mention the area to improve, and end with another positive attribute. Because you place the criticism between two other elements, the method is called the feedback “sandwich.”
Let’s take an example where you want to inform a writer about the inconsistency in the sentences. If you opt for the usual approach, you’d mention, “I’d recommend you to improve the continuity in your writing. Your sentences do not flow well. ” Not everyone likes negative feedback about their work. Chances are, such criticism can cause denial, counter-arguments, or a nod of the head followed by no action.
Instead, you can use the feedback sandwich method by saying, “Your content looks insightful. I’d recommend you improve the continuity in your writing. Your sentences do not flow well. That said, I’ve seen tremendous improvement since you started.”
When you place the negative feedback between two positive comments, the recipient has a higher tendency to work on it.
A word of caution here. If you use the same technique repeatedly with the same people, they’ll notice the pattern. Whenever you utter any good words, a thought will run in the back of their head, “OK, so that was the compliment. What’s the negative feedback now?”
If you want to avoid such scenarios, provide positive comments whenever you have the opportunity without pointing any mistakes.
Also, when you use the feedback sandwich, praise people for their true skills. If you make up compliments just to fit in constructive criticism, people will consider you pretentious.
9. Keep it face to face
Communication is more about your body language and tone of voice than the words you utter. Therefore, the recipient will digest your message with clarity if you provide constructive criticism face to face.
In the last decade, communication has shifted from the traditional coffee shop and meeting room conversations to texts and emails. Providing negative feedback face to face is never easy, therefore many people choose the easy way out. Employees have been fired over emails and break-ups have happened on text messages.
Don’t be the wimp who hides behind the keyboard or a phone to avoid tough conversations. Besides, written text can be interpreted the wrong way based on how the recipient perceives you.
If you must criticize other people, you must also have the mettle to look them in the eye while doing so. If you cannot have a face-to-face conversation, schedule a video call. Today, you can pull out your phone and have a virtual conversation with anyone anywhere.
10. Time it right
No matter how thoughtful and respectful your words are, if you deliver them at the wrong time they won’t yield results. Your feedback should neither be too early nor too late.
You have to consider the current circumstances, the personality of the receiver, and his experience in the subject. Approach the process like a music teacher who coaches various students with a wide range of expertise at every point. A pupil who joined a week ago cannot be expected to know the anatomy of the instrument. Similarly, experienced students need more than basic lessons to grow their skills.
Besides, each person learns at a different pace. One student can make more progress in 6 months than another did in 2 years. But, a teacher needs to look at every individual separately and help them improve their skills.
If you offer feedback which the recipient cannot understand, you have provided it too early. On the other hand, if your feedback can no longer help make a change, you’ve provided it too late.
Fruitful feedback consists of 3 ingredients – the right intent, the right words, and the right timing.
Constructive criticism can go wrong even when you make a minor mistake. A wrong word or an erroneous tone can tick the recipient off, lead to an argument, or end with defensiveness, none of which help anybody. But that said, providing constructive feedback isn’t complicated either and the benefits are many.
To make sure the recipient accepts the feedback try to avoid making any mistakes. If you pay heed to the 10 tips above, you’re already halfway there.
You just have to recall and incorporate those pointers whenever you’ve to offer feedback. Will you?
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.