Gracefully giving and receiving criticism — even constructive criticism — is an art form. As with any other skill, these conversations take practice. Whether you are on the giving or receiving end, many factors creep into the situation and sabotage even the most practiced speech or response. Learning to give and take criticism aimed to improve performance in the workplace is worth the effort.
Giving constructive criticism
Being the one in charge, or the one who must manage employee behavior is a difficult task. No matter how skilled you might be at delivering constructive criticism, some people will take offense. Because let’s face it, no one likes to be told how to do their job. Experience at delivering constructive criticism is the best way to get better at it, but sometimes even the most versed leaders run into trouble. No one can prepare for every type of situation. However, having a few go-to strategies to lean on can help.
Go-to strategies for successfully delivering constructive criticism
- Timing is EVERYTHING! And the right time for one person might not be the right time for another. Know your employees, their vulnerabilities, and all of the little details that might factor into their response to the conversation. For instance, if an employee is already having a bad day, it’s not the time to pour salt into the wound. Or, if you can see they are overwhelmed or stressed, there will be a better time to address the situation. Be considerate and put your employee first by arranging the time for the conversation around their needs, not your own.
- Presentation is KEY! Don’t barge into the person’s workspace guns blazing’. If you find yourself getting anxious or worked up over the thought of how the conversation will go, do some quick mindful activities before walking in. Deep breaths and some neck stretches to release tension are sure to help. Always open with, “Hey, do you have a minute?” But don’t look or sound too serious. Keep it light. Follow with a compliment on their work, “Hey, that summary of the presentation last week was excellent work. Thanks for doing that.” Keep it sincere. Now the ice is broken. You aren’t anxious and nervous, and the employee does not feel attacked.
- Validation is the GOLD STANDARD! After the conversation, always ask if there are questions. Don’t be in too big of a rush. End with some personal conversation, maybe about their family or a vacation they took. Don’t leave letting them think your suggestions and them “fixing things” is all you care about. And always before leaving, make it clear that they are doing a great job. Make their worth known.
Receiving constructive criticism
The only thing worse than delivering news someone might take offense to is receiving it. True, your reaction might depend on how your superior approached the situation, but you cannot control others. You can only control how you react to others. Yes, at first, when the conversation begins, you might get that sinking feeling in your gut and want to crawl under the desk. However, with a few strategies, you can hold your head high.
Go-to strategies for receiving constructive criticism
- Understand that the conversation taking place is probably just as uncomfortable for your leader as it is for you. Take it as a compliment that your superior thinks enough of you to want you to succeed and do better. Take it as a professional courtesy that your boss is having a conversation with you instead of venting to other employees about your shortcomings. Although the words might sting your pride, be thankful the conversation happened so you can address the issue as quickly as possible.
- Do your part to maintain a positive work culture after the conversation. Don’t run to another employee and complain and shed a negative light on the situation. This behavior is detrimental to the workplace atmosphere and slowly deteriorates your relationship with your superior.
- If you do not understand the full scope of what your boss is trying to say, ask questions. The only way you can effectively use the constructive criticism is to understand it. Your boss might be nervous and mincing words. We all tend to minimize situations when we have these types of tough conversations, and we say things like, “Well, I kind of think you might be…” Just know that this is your boss’s way of saying this conversation is tough, and I’m sorry this is happening. So if the message gets jumbled in minimized speak, ask questions to get the answers you need to know.
- Be honest with yourself about the conversation and your performance. Too often, we are upset, so our pride goes on auto-save, and we automatically start defending our actions. Stop and breathe, and then think about the real message delivered. If you are honest with yourself, you will most likely see some truth in the words.
No one likes confrontation in the workplace, even if it’s constructive criticism. Think of your colleagues and leaders as a team, and the team has one goal — to win. Being on a winning team is an incredible feeling, but it takes a lot of hard work and some finesse to get to the top. Learning to give and receive constructive criticism is one step in the right direction. The next time you find yourself in that awkward position of delivering or hearing some well-intended suggestions, just know it’s all part of developing that winning team, and it will all be worth it in the end.