Tips to give and process feedback

Editor’s note: Trish Sammer is the senior content marketing manager at Trello. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “How to deliver and receive constructive criticism.” 

A short summary

  • Constructive criticism calls attention to an improvement area while also offering steps to grow.
  • Feedback supports employee growth, boosts morale and improves both individual and group performance.
  • Paying attention to your timing, language and delivery can make it easier for people to accept feedback without getting defensive.

Constructive criticism. The two words alone are enough to inspire a wince and a shudder – not just for employees who receive this feedback, but also for the managers who need to give it to them.

It’s nerve-wracking to point out someone’s improvement areas, even if it’s something small. In one study, only four out of 212 people told the survey provider they had a smudge on their face. It’s proof that most of us would rather bite our tongue than call attention to something that could be difficult to hear. Dodging hard conversations doesn’t keep the peace the way you might think. Research shows that avoiding confrontation can create even more emotional stress than if you had delivered the difficult feedback in the first place.

As a manager, evaluating and critiquing your direct reports is part of the gig. You’re doing them (and yourself) a disservice by keeping your lips zipped. Here’s how to approach constructive criticism in a way that offers more support and less-sweaty palms.

What is constructive criticism and how is it different than criticism?

Constructive criticism offers a balanced critique of someone’s performance by acknowledging the positive and negative aspects of their work, along with the appropriate steps to improve. Unlike purely negative criticism, which focuses only on what the person did wrong, a constructive feedback session is specific, encouraging and actionable.

  • Criticism: “You haven’t been managing your time at work and you’re always turning in assignments late.”
  • Constructive criticism: “I’ve noticed that while your assignments are thorough, you’ve turned in the past five after the due date. For the next one, I’d like you to outline a plan with incremental due dates so you can deliver the final report on time.”

See the difference? Constructive criticism is, well, constructive. It supports development by calling attention to what the person needs to improve and then offering advice on how they can take steps in the right direction.

What is destructive criticism?

Destructive criticism is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s purely negative feedback that undermines, belittles or tears down the recipient rather than offering helpful insights to improve. As you can probably guess, it’s best to avoid this approach, which can come across as mean-spirited or downright malicious.

What are the benefits of constructive criticism? 

Even when it’s done well, delivering constructive criticism can make you feel a little jittery. But it’s still worth doing, as this type of feedback:

  • Supports employee growth and development: Your direct reports crave critiques that help them learn and improve. An impressive 72% of employees rated “managers providing critical feedback” as important for their career development.
  • Boosts employee morale: If you skip out on offering feedback to employees, it won’t be long before they feel completely overlooked and neglected. In contrast, offering input makes them feel both seen and invested in, which improves their morale and motivation.
  • Improves organizational performance: Employees can’t change their behaviors if they don’t realize there’s a problem. Thoughtful feedback helps people understand how they can be even better in their roles, which improves individual employee performance as well as the performance of the entire organization.

How to give effective feedback in the workplace 

To get the most out of these conversations, you’ll need to put some thought and intention behind when, where and how you offer constructive feedback. Below are five tips to get it right.  

1. Consider your timing 

Employees don’t just want feedback – they want it regularly, with 63% of employees saying they want more frequent feedback from their managers. That’s not to say you should drop critiques on unsuspecting people whenever they pop into your mind. Give some thought to the timing of these conversations. For example, your one-on-one meetings are a perfect time to talk through challenges, check on progress and provide input on improvement areas. These meetings offer a private setting at a time when your direct report is prepared to talk about their recent performance, unlike when you dive-bomb them with a piece of feedback when they’re heading into an important presentation.

When in doubt, it never hurts to ask someone if they’re open to feedback to confirm they’re in a headspace to receive and process that information. Additionally, creating personal user manuals with your team gives you details about when and how they prefer you deliver those comments.

As you think about timing, give some consideration to yourself too. According to research, feedback conversations can be mentally and emotionally draining for managers, especially those who have a lot of empathy. For that reason, it’s smart to save these sessions for times when you can follow them with a break or some lighter-lift tasks. 

2. Stay objective

Constructive criticism can easily cross a line into personal territory, which is why it’s important to stay as impartial as possible. This doesn’t mean you need to be vague or general, on the contrary, specific feedback is always better. Below are ways to remain objective. 

Sharing your intent

It’s easy for people to read into feedback or assign ulterior motives. Explicitly state why you’re offering that critique to show this isn’t about ill will or personal vendettas.

  • Example: “Our reports need to stick with a consistent format to avoid confusion with our team and our clients.”

Use “I” language

Using plenty of “I” language gets your point across without people feeling blamed or defensive. It also helps you avoid defaulting to group language (like “We all noticed…” or “The team thinks…”) that can make people feel ganged up on.

  • Example: “I’ve noticed your reports don’t abide by our usual format.”

Offer specific examples

Backing up your criticism with a real example emphasizes that your observation is based on facts and not your personal opinions.

  • Example: “For example, the recent analytics report you sent to client XYZ was missing the analytics snapshot at the front.”

Don’t make assumptions

Focus on stating facts rather than reading into an employee’s reasoning or making insinuations. If you do need to know more about why that issue is coming up, ask simply without any implications.

  • Example: “Is there a reason you’re not using the report template saved in our shared folder?”

What about the compliment sandwich?

Squishing criticism between two pieces of praise was a popular approach for a while, but it’s no longer recommended. A “feedback sandwich” is confusing and can also be interpreted as disingenuous by employees, which creates a sense of distrust.

3. Focus on solutions

Yes, the point of constructive criticism is to call attention to something that needs fixing. But remember that this is for the sake of development, not discouragement. That’s why growth-focused comments go beyond telling employees what they need to fix and offer actionable next steps to make it happen.

Before providing your feedback, ask yourself this: What do I expect this person to do after hearing this critique? Whatever your answer is, include it along with your criticism so they’re clear on how to move forward.

  • Example: “Next time, please use the report template. I moved it to the main page of our shared folder so that it’s easier for everybody to find moving forward.”

 4. Start a conversation

The most productive feedback conversations aren’t one-sided – they open a dialogue between you and your direct report. However, an employee might be hesitant to chime in on their own, especially if they feel embarrassed. Make it clear that this is a two-way discussion by asking questions like: 

  • Do you have any questions about this feedback? 
  • Is there anything else you want me to know about this? 
  • Do you need anything from me to make your next steps clearer?

It’s a seemingly small change that makes a big difference in your direct reports feeling supported rather than scolded. 

5. Follow-up on feedback

You did it. You offered a piece of constructive criticism. Time to breathe a sigh of relief and relish the fact that the hard part is over, right? 

Not so fast. Making a single remark usually isn’t enough to inspire meaningful change, especially when 50% of employees don’t act on the feedback they’ve been given.

What you do after you deliver constructive criticism is equally as important as the criticism itself. As the manager, you can help your direct reports make the most of your feedback by:

  • Creating a shared record or log of the feedback they’ve received.
  • Collaboratively hashing out plans and milestones to address improvement areas, especially bigger ones that require more time and effort.
  • Dedicating a portion of your one-on-ones to following up on past feedback and checking in on progress.

All of these prove you’re a manager who goes beyond highlighting problems and plays a hands-on role in solutions. 

Receiving constructive criticism: How to handle feedback with poise, not panic

Knowing how to offer feedback is important, but there are bound to be times when you also need to receive it graciously. Take the opportunity to set an example of what it looks like to professionally accept and act on feedback. 

Process the information

Your immediate reaction usually isn’t your best one. Take a breath to collect your thoughts before responding and don’t be afraid to ask for time to process before coming back to the conversation later.

  • Ask clarifying questions: Feedback isn’t helpful if you don’t understand it. Be sure to ask thoughtful follow-up questions to get any additional information you need.
  • Practice active listening: It’s human nature. The second you hear something remotely negative, your internal critic turns up the volume and you tune everything else out. Try your best to commit to active listening to pick up on all the details of the feedback. When the other person is done, summarize their remarks back to them to confirm you’re understanding.
  • Remember to say thank you: Thanking someone for feedback (especially if it’s hard to hear) feels counterintuitive. But remember that feedback means someone invested time and energy into helping you improve. That deserves a little gratitude.

Get comfortable with constructive criticism

Most of us aren’t even willing to tell someone they have something in their teeth, so it makes sense that we often sidestep offering constructive criticism at work. But shying away from those hard conversations ultimately robs your direct reports of valuable information they can use to learn and improve. So, it’s time to summon your courage, use these tips and truly invest in your employees’ development with candid, helpful feedback.