We spend a significant portion of our lives at work, often in the company of people who we either dislike or have little in common with. Given this, alternative methods of working and the pressure of project deadlines, it is all too easy for frustrations to boil over and a blame culture to emerge.
This is extremely detrimental, however, as such a culture encourages us to apportion blame to our colleagues while judging their performances harshly and subjectively. Only criticism without judgement can truly be constructive, so it is crucial that you hone your communications skills if you are to create a more positive working environment.
1. Tackle the Problem rather than the person
When workplace projects or processes go awry, it is crucial that you analyse the failings and learn critical lessons going forward. This is not possible if you focus your comments on the person rather than the problem, however, as this manifests itself as a personal attack that distracts from the issues at hand and does not take into account any extenuating circumstances that may have led to the failings.
Let’s say that your colleague has given an uninspiring presentation that has failed to wow a new client. Even if you critique with good intentions, using emotive words such as ‘boring’ and applying these to the person rather than the presentation is counter-productive in the extreme and likely to prevent further constructive dialogue. Instead, try to use passive language that is focused objectively on the presentation alone and avoid any personal references. When you do offer feedback, be sure to give each individual point context by offering suggestions for improvement (such as making points in a more concise manner).
2. Understand the goal of offering criticism and share this with your colleague
We have already touched on how emotive language can prevent constructive criticism, but the same principle applies to the way in which you deliver your critique. Directing anger and frustration at the recipient can cause them to shut down, for example, while seemingly aimless and unstructured criticism leaves them with no potential to improve or progress going forward.
If you are tasked with appraising an under-performing employee, for example, it is crucial that you break down each point of criticism and determine the precise motivation for delivering each one. So if you criticise their application because you want them to fulfil their potential in the workplace and share this with the recipient, they can consider the feedback in context while benefiting from an actionable future goal. From your perspective, try using the mind-mapping technique to create a visual representative of your thoughts so that these can be organised and clearly communicated through feedback.
3. Focus on Tackling actionable issues
Even though each piece of constructive criticism will have its own unique motivation, as a general rule such feedback is designed to either help drive personal and collaborative improvement or recover from a mistake. With this in mind, it is imperative that you only critique things which are within the recipient’s control, such as their attitude, application and level of skill. This is constructive criticism that enables your colleagues to take actionable steps towards improvements, whereas a general critique of external factors will leave them disillusioned and helpless.
In practical terms, let’s imagine that your colleague is organising a corporate event and has already paid in-full to secure a venue in a remote and difficult to access location. Instead of critiquing their choice and repeatedly saying that the venue is inadequate, it is far better to focus on what can be done to resolve the problem and make good on the investment. Laying on transportation for guests offers a viable solution, for example, as does being empathetic with guests to avoid further backlash.
4. Understand the issues at hand and do not make assumptions
Empathy is crucial to constructive criticism, as is a keen sense of objectivity. These two attributes enable you to understand the other person’s perspective, while also imploring you to understand the issues in detail before responding. In short, you need to act based on what you know rather than what you think, as this ensures that any feedback that you offer is constructive, fair and easy for the recipient to identify with.
Let’s say that your colleague is tasked with presenting an update on a specific project, but is only able to deliver an uncertain speech that confused his managers and stakeholders. While it may be natural to assume that this performance was a result of nerves and inexperience (and subsequently suggest that someone else makes the presentation next time), this is not based on fact and does not take any additional factors into consideration. The issue may be a lack of preparation time to the pressure of work, for example, while there may be other circumstances that affected your colleague’s performance.
Either way, this more considered approach improves the quality and delivery of your feedback while also driving informed decision-making.
5. Empower Colleagues with specific and honest feedback
Whenever you aim to offer constructive criticism in the workplace, there is a need to be as specific and as honest as you possibly can. In terms of the former, excellent clarity of thought and an ability to articulate your critique concisely creates specific points for improvement, eliminating any ambiguity that may exist in the recipient’s mind. The value of this can be reinforced with honest and open communication, as this type of direct interaction drives succinct and easy-to-understand actions going forward.
If you imagine that a sales colleague is struggling to engage buyers, you may look to offer them a critique concerning the effectiveness of their communication. This instantly open to conjecture, however, as this could apply to internal or external relationships while it may also relate to written or verbal communication. Instead, use specific and focused language to describe the issue in detail, stating that the colleague in question has an issue when talking to buyers.
It is also sensible to advocate the consequences of this problem, such as diminishing sales and a decline in turnover. This helps your colleague to understand the importance of the problem and the need to act on the criticism.
6. Use the Feedback sandwich method to underpin your constructive criticism
Blame culture and non-constructive criticism thrive in a climate of fear and short-term thinking, as people are more concerned with hiding their mistakes than taking on greater responsibility in the workplace. It is therefore important that you use sustainable methods to deliver constructive criticism, creating a culture of fairness in which workers are empowered to improve through feedback.
This is where the ‘feedback sandwich’ method of delivering constructive criticism comes into play, as this simple technique includes three segments that focus on an individual’s strengths and areas for improvement. When critiquing a colleagues performance, you start by discussing strengths and positive elements before continuing with constructive criticism and actionable suggestions for improvement. You then complete the process by reiterating the positive comments made at the start, while reinforcing the impact that the suggested improvements will have once implemented.
Whether you are critiquing a negative character trait or a piece of work, this method drives balanced feedback and incentivizes workers to make positive changes for the future.