Giving criticism—whether by email, over the phone, or face-to-face—can always be awkward. Even if the message is basically the same, the way you deliver it plays a huge role in how well (or badly) it's received. No manager is going to get through to a struggling employee if they don’t find tactful ways to broach the subject.
If that much is familiar, then so is the "praise sandwich" many a manager has been counseled to deliver. This is when a point of criticism is wedged between a couple of compliments. It goes something like this:
Wow, you really killed it on the introduction to that sales presentation. The middle seemed to slow down a bit too much with the overload of sales numbers, but the end was really fantastic.
Voila! You’ve packaged your criticism in between two compliments, like a porcupine nestling among a couple of pillows. And maybe some employees will respond well to that, but chances are you can do a lot better. Here are a few subtler, and ultimately more effective methods to deliver effective feedback.
This may seem like another way of saying "compliment sandwich," but bear with me. If you stop grasping for related compliments you can stick onto the criticism and just whittle down to the criticism itself, it's usually easier to deliver a coherent piece of feedback.
From: The text in your presentation was good, but the charts need work.
To: The text in your presentation was great. We need to improve the charts so they’re just as good.
From: You need to do more research for your last analysis.
To: The first analysis in your report was right on. Let’s do the same amount of extensive research in the last analysis that made the first one so good.
In both examples, you've ditched the contrived structure of a compliment sandwich and related the point of criticism to the bright spot—they form part of a coherent whole. You’re essentially saying: "You did great here, so I’m sure you can do great over here." It’s an extra warm and fuzzy way of wording criticism because you use an aspect of their own work as the new standard to strive toward.
Instead of directly criticizing by saying a presentation needs to make use of more resources, or that a report needs to be revised, you can ask questions that lead your colleague to the answer themselves.
From: You need more resources to support your presentation's credibility.
To: Could you find any resources that would improve the credibility of your presentation?
From: This report needs some revision.
To: What do you think needs to be revised in this report?
In both cases, you’re empowering your team member with a chance to take personal responsibility and find their own ways of improving their work. You’re also telling them to do something through your question. In the first example, you’re asking them to look for resources, which they may not have known to do. In the second, you’re making it clear that the report needs to be revised—and asking them to reflect on how—without commanding them to do so and leaving it at that.
A great way to criticize without raising the ire of your employees or coworkers is to blame it on a recognized authority on the subject in question.
From: Finalizing financial statements without first shoring up the cost estimate may turn out to be a mistake once we go to the bank for a loan.
To: It says on page three of the bank’s terms and conditions that they "require accurate cost estimates when evaluating financial statements."
You may sound a bit like a know-it-all, and this method may still irk some colleagues. But if you phrase it well, it becomes you and your colleagues against those darn terms and conditions, not you against your colleagues. If it doesn’t go over well, you can always say, essentially, "I don’t make the law, I just enforce it."
Instead of saying that an argument is unconvincing, you can let your colleague know that, if it were you, the argument would have to be more convincing. For example:
From: That sales pitch isn’t going to convince anyone.
To: I'm not sure if that sales pitch would convince me.
This one may not seem as sensitive as the others, but it does allow you to let your colleague know that their presentation needs work without dismissing the whole thing as worthless. By saying the presentation wouldn’t work on you, you’re still allowing for the possibility that it might work on someone else.
This last one may sound obvious, but in practice there’s a subtle difference between criticizing a person and criticizing a piece of work produced by a person. Plus, so much of the received wisdom about giving feedback cuts the other way—it's all about being sensitive to the personal element. But flipping that around doesn't force you to be harsh and unfeeling.
From: You made mistakes all throughout the memo.
To: There were lots of mistakes in the first draft of the memo.
Everyone knows you’re saying that your colleague made a bunch of mistakes, but by eliminating the "you," it sounds like you’re just commenting on the memo alone. This makes everything seem less personal. We’re blaming the draft, not the person, which is much more palatable. Likewise, it's the memo that needs correcting, not the person who drew it up.
The core idea behind each of these methods is to inform your colleague or team member of the shortfalls you noticed, while providing them at least one of two things (and ideally both): a second chance, and a way to save face. Either way, work gets better and everyone's feelings are spared. Everybody wins, and no one needs to gulp down praise sandwiches they don't want to eat.
Chris Meyer is a freelance writer who runs bizwrites.com, blending business writing and art with self-improvement.