Criticism is like a visit to the dentist: No one wants to experience it and sometimes it's painful, but it prevents further deterioration. When handled with professionalism on the part of both the deliverer and the recipient, constructive criticism can be a powerful tool to remove a roadblock preventing an employee from reaching her full potential.
Elements of Constructive Criticism
Benevolent intent is the hallmark of constructive criticism. It is non-judgmental guidance that will help the recipient improve his performance and move forward in his career. To be useful, the criticism must identify specific behaviors and avoid such subjective areas as the employee's attitude or thought processes. Above all, it should include a suggested alternate course of action to give the employee a way forward.
If you're the boss who has to deliver the message, spend some time planning for this conversation. Think about the specific outcome you want -- which behaviors you want to stop and what you want to see the employee do instead. Choose a private venue for the conversation and, no matter how much the employee's performance irks you, put your emotions aside before you begin the conversation. Keep an even tone during the discussion and use “I” statements to avoid getting personal. For example, instead of saying, “Your work is always late,” say “I’m getting a lot of pressure regarding missed deadlines and I need your help in improving our track record.”
If you're on the receiving end, don't give excuses or fight back with counter-accusations, no matter how much the criticism hurts. Paraphrase what you've heard to demonstrate you've understood, for example, “So you're saying that my reports aren't backed up by enough research?” If the criticism is vague, ask for specific examples and for guidance on how you can improve your performance. Though it's probably the last thing you want to do, thank the boss for her concern and then go away to think about it. Ask yourself if the criticism has any legitimacy and whether altering your behavior will ultimately benefit you in the form of raises and promotions.
Constructive criticism is only useful if it leads to changed behavior. If you're the recipient, try to make the adjustments your boss suggested and, after a few weeks, schedule a follow-up meeting for feedback on how well your new approach is working. Accept that further tweaks may be necessary and remember that all of this is designed to help you succeed. If you are the boss, provide the employee with positive feedback on the changes he has made and show appreciation for his efforts. If further changes are needed, call him back for a follow-up appointment, but be sure to start with praise for his improvement and couch the follow-up guidance in terms of an effort to help him do even better.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.