The Nice Person’s Guide To Criticism

Giving and receiving criticism is an uncomfortable but necessary part of career growth. Here are six ways to do it without being mean.

The Nice Person’s Guide To Criticism
[Photo: Flickr user anthony kelly]

Even when your intentions are good, it can be tough to give constructive criticism. It’s an awkward conversation for the giver, and it can spark a negative reaction in the receiver.


“Did you know that 34% of working professionals become less motivated and don’t work as hard when their work has been criticized?” asks Matt Thomas, president of the human resources firm WorkSmart Systems.

Constructive criticism also brings out defensiveness. “Human beings are hardwired to defend themselves when receiving negative feedback,” says Shari Harley, founder and president of the management-training firm Candid Culture and author of How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships That Really Work.
“You can’t eliminate people’s defensive reactions to negative feedback, but you can reduce it, making feedback easier to hear and act upon,” she says.

The first step is to make sure you have the right to give constructive criticism, says Robbie Kellman Baxter, founder of the management consulting firm Peninsula Strategies and author of The Membership Economy.
She says there are three ways you earn this right:

  1. Someone asks for it.
  2. Your title grants you permission (you’re the boss or the customer).
  3. A formal space has been carved out for feedback relating to a particular project.

If you haven’t earned the right to give constructive criticism, you need to ask permission, says Kellman Baxter. “Be open to the idea that they might say no,” she says.

Once you’re in a position to provide feedback, there are six ways to offer constructive criticism that helps a situation instead of hurting it:


1. Balance negative with positive

We’ve all heard of the criticism sandwich technique: Wedge the constructive statement between two positives. Some experts say it undermines your feedback, but Kellman Baxter says it’s important to point out what people do right as well as what they do wrong.

“In general, you should be giving five pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative,” says Kellman Baxter. “Asking managers to get into this habit does wonders for strengthening morale and results.”

And always end on a good note, adds Thomas: “Let the employee know what you value in them and how they benefit the company,” he says. “This will ensure that they still feel valued as an employee.”

2. Don’t make it personal

Constructive criticism isn’t about insulting someone; it’s pointing out what they can do better. It should focus on the behavior and not the person.

“It’s not, ‘You’re so bossy,’” Kellman Baxter says. “It’s, ‘At yesterday’s meeting, you didn’t ask for other opinions and didn’t include the rest of us in the decision making.’ That’s specific.”


3. Include recommendations for improvement

Most times, employees didn’t know they were doing something wrong, Thomas says. “They are caught off guard by the conversation and ultimately need assistance to improve,” he says.

He suggests providing examples or recommendations on how to improve that let the employee know that you are there to help, not criticize them.

4. Don’t “save up” your negative feedback

People often hoard feedback until a situation becomes so frustrating that they can’t help but speak up, says Harley. “Because they waited too long to say what they think, many more words come tumbling out than is either necessary or helpful.”

Instead, make it a practice to give small amounts of feedback at a time–one or two strengths and areas for improvement during a conversation. People cannot focus on more than one or two things at a time, says Harley.

5. Be timely but not immediate

Give feedback close to the time of an event, but not when you’re upset, says Harley.


“The time to fix a problem is when no one is upset,” she says. “I call this practice the 24-hour guideline and the one-week rule: Wait 24 hours to give feedback if you’re upset, but not longer than a week after an event occurs.”

6. Finally, be discreet

“Praise in public, criticize in private,” says Harley. Make sure all negative feedback discussions happen behind a closed door.

Related: 8 Ways To Train Yourself To Accept Criticism