Giving Feedback – Criticise without Criticism

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Giving Feedback

As a team leader there will be times when you’ll need to criticise team members. You’ll dread it at first. But with experience and a bit of practice, it will become easier.




Dishing out criticism tests your communication skills. If you do it right, you can transform a negative experience into something empowering and motivating for your team member.

As a rule, only give criticism in private. You don’t want your employees to feel self-conscious. Also, begin on a positive note. Use phrases such as, “This may help…” or “Here’s an idea…” And never criticise an employee’s personality, limit your comment to specific actions you want the person to modify or improve.

Try to give feedback as close to the observation or incident as possible so it’s fresh in everyone’s minds. The longer the time between the observation and when feedback is given will impact the quality and value of the feedback.

Before you criticise, ask yourself, “What is the person doing?” Make sure your answer captures exact behaviour. If you resort to words such as “slow”, “careless” or “unacceptable,” you’re not reporting actual events; instead, you’re judging and labelling their behaviour.

If possible, the best way to give criticism is not actually give criticism. Nobody likes being told they’re wrong… Instead use some reflective questions that lead your employee to identify what they did well and areas they could improve.

This is extremely helpful when observing individuals with low morale or lacking in confidence – nine times out of then they will know exactly where they went wrong. After you have finished observing, allow for a period of reflection to look back on the experience.

By using reflective questions and facilitating an open discussion with them, they are less likely to get defensive or see feedback as a negative (because they came up with their own development points).

Here are a few example reflection questions:

  • Did the session go as planned? If not, why not?
  • Looking back is there anything you would improve?
  • How did you feel that went? What went well? Is there anything you were unhappy with?
  • If you were doing it again, what would you do differently and why?
  • How can ensure that this doesn’t happen again? What steps do you need to take?
  • Is there anything I can do help you improve in these key areas?

Once you have helped them identify areas to improve, get them to set their own action and development plan. Speak in sincere, upbeat manner. If your criticism is well-intentioned, there’s no reason to sound hesitant, stern or downbeat. Your enthusiastic tone will set the stage for individual response.

Here’s how to give constructive criticism:

Be direct

If you’re uncomfortable, you might skirt the issue. But talking around it only prolongs the agony and makes the situation worse. State your criticism succinctly, free from babbling or dropping hints.

Balancing positive and negative feedback

If you only give individuals either positive or negative feedback, people will look upon an observation as useless and not respect the feedback you are providing. You need to give the right balance of positive and negatives.

Try using the feedback sandwich method:  The analogy with a sandwich is made because you wedge any criticism between a positive opening and a positive ending.

Here’s how it works – your feedback is broken into 3 segments (beginning, middle and end).

  1. Beginning: Start off by focusing on the positives – what the team member did well, what impressed you about their performance.
  2. Middle: Provide constructive criticism— any areas of improvement, what you would like them to try and why these are important.
  3. End: Summarise and support – how the individual can achieve these areas of improvement. Followed by reiterating the positive comments you gave at the beginning of the feedback session. Set action plan for the individual and follow this up at a later date.

It’s important to always end on a positive note and to express your confidence in their ability to improve performance. Constructive feedback should always be centred around professional development and coaching.

Preserve the employee’s self-esteem

Let your employee save face by saying, “maybe you’re not aware of this…” or “Here’s one suggestion” and “I’d like to hear your ideas.” As noted previously, you can also provide them with some reflective questions to get them to identify areas of improvement. This will help them build in confidence and enjoy the observation and feedback process.

Feedback overload

Too many observers try to cover too much in a feedback session – I have also been guilty of this before. Instead, try to limit yourself to three or four key points and offer coaching and guidance on these points only. By overloading an individual with feedback, you can hinder their development – not only does this frustrate them but it can also confuse them. Remember, that the purpose of the observation is for development and improving performance (KISS – Keep it simple stupid).




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