How to Give Criticism without Damaging Your Professional Relationships

Criticism is, well, critical to performance improvement, but it can be stressful to deliver, especially when you value the relationship. Too often, emotions and defensiveness get in the way of the recipient accepting feedback in a positive way. The result is an uncomfortable and unsuccessful interaction, and potentially a ruined relationship. Giving criticism can be so stressful that you may prefer not to give it all: in one study, 21% of managers said they avoid giving negative feedback altogether! However, avoiding the interaction doesn’t do your coworker, vendor, or subordinate any favors. The person will still continue to make the same mistake, and they will eventually suffer consequences that could have possibly been avoided. Done correctly, giving feedback can positively impact your relationships, improve productivity, and create positive outcomes. Try the following techniques when delivering criticism to ensure a positive experience: 

Be empathetic. Start the conversation by mentioning how you have struggled with the same piece of feedback you are about to give them, and how you have improved. If you haven’t, mention another critique about yourself with which you struggle and how you take action to correct it. By saying “I struggle with this too, and here’s what I do…,” you are empathizing with them and reminding them that you are trying to help. Admitting that you make mistakes too builds trust and can prevent the recipient from getting defensive.

Be specific. Being specific with feedback is crucial. Simply saying, “You need to be more proactive,” is not enough, and can create confusion. Cite specific examples of when they missed the mark so they understand what meets your standards, and what doesn’t.

Establish objective criteria. When outlining criteria, try to be as objective as possible so the evaluation is based on facts, rather than subjectivity (which is based on personal perspectives). For example, have a specific outcome or a numerical target that needs to be met, as opposed to having subjective criteria such as “you need to strengthen your pitch.” Starting with a goal and then discussing how to reach it creates a partnered approach to improvement and clear expectations of what you want them to achieve.

Relate the criticism to their career. Research shows that the vast majority of people find corrective criticism to be helpful to their careers. Explain how implementing your feedback will improve their skills, increase productivity, or further their career development. Remind them you are not here to point out their flaws, but rather you genuinely care about their professional development and want them to improve.

Ask what you can do to help. Give them a chance to mention any obstacles they may have in implementing the feedback you’ve provided. By giving them the opportunity to ask for help, you are empowering them to think through solutions on how they can improve and openly asking how you can improve in supporting them.

Giving (and receiving) criticism isn’t easy, but it is a necessary part of everyone’s professional journey. Following these tips will help reduce tension, show respect for the recipient and keep your conversation positive. When you are empathetic, specific, and focused on the facts, your criticism is more likely to be appreciated, valued, and implemented.

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