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How to give constructive criticism that works

As a project manager, helping your team to reach their full potential or adapt to the roles that are expected of them often requires highlighting where they could be doing something differently. Constructive criticism is when a manager manages to point an employee in the right direction in a positive manner that encourages improvement and doesn’t demotivate staff. Understandably it can be a difficult art to master.

Here are some ways that you can deliver constructive criticism to your team which is supportive and helpful, enabling staff to see the good intentions of your words and take on board what you’ve said.

  1. Plan what you are going to say and keep to what’s necessary

One of the most important elements in maintaining a culture of constructive criticism is keeping it well thought out and consistent. Knee-jerk reactions or off-the-cuff remarks can come across as contradictory or insulting, while in contrast, showing that you have taken the time to carefully consider your remarks will demonstrate the respect you have for the team member. Stay as objective as possible and don’t bring up issues which may be a personal dislike but aren’t affecting anything professionally.

  1. Be clear about what you are talking about

Beating around the bush doesn’t help anyone when it comes to constructive criticism. Make sure the wording that you use leaves no ambiguity about what you are looking for. With someone who’s often late for example, ironically saying “You really like those extra few minutes in bed don’t you” might feel like a light-hearted way of addressing their tardiness but it’s not addressing the need for change or what you want from them.

  1. Support your constructive criticism with reference to specific actions

Similar to the previous point, when focusing on a specific behaviour or process you’d like to improve on, it’s best to be specific about what that is. A good way to do this is by using clear examples, such as “I am encouraged with your enthusiasm but at the last team meeting you interrupted several people. I believe it would be more beneficial for the team if everyone was allowed to finish their thoughts before we give our opinions on them.”

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  1. Focus on the benefits

Criticism for its own sake can be seen as an attack on an employee. For it to be constructive its necessary to also include the benefits of following your desired path, such as improving their skills or making them more valuable for the organization.

  1. Be open to exploring solutions together

While it is generally up to a manager to decide how things should be, collaboration is important with constructive criticism to get buy-in from the employee in question. Once you have made known the area you would like to change, ask them to brainstorm some solutions that might work for both of you. Using a collaborative project management tool like Clarizen can help you adapt and monitor solutions you come to agree on.

  1. Serve the constructive criticism in a feedback sandwich

Staying positive while staying on message is the goal of constructive criticism and one way to do that is by using a method called the “feedback sandwich”. This means sandwiching the “difficult” part of the criticism between two more positive pieces of feedback. For example, you might say to an employee who isn’t engaging enough in meetings that “I think the work you are doing is excellent, but I’d really like you to contribute more to our team meetings, I think we’d all benefit a lot from your knowledge”.

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