Constructive criticism gets a bad rap for being daunting, stressful, and slightly cringe-worthy — and that’s because it often feels that way in the moment. It’s only natural to take offense when we’re told that we need to improve, and when it comes to giving feedback, it’s usually not done at the right time, or in the right way.
“Feedback is critically important in the workplace,” Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., a leadership and organizational psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, tells Thrive. “We can’t improve without feedback, and that’s why it should be an ongoing process.” Riggio says we need to reframe how we see criticism at work — and by making feedback a core part of our company’s culture, we can all become more comfortable with speaking up in a way that’s both direct, and constructive. (At Thrive, employees are empowered to give honest feedback regularly, as part of the company’s cultural value of compassionate directness.) “There should be an ongoing ‘performance management’ model,’” Riggio explains, “which includes providing feedback and assistance on a day-to-day basis.”
Riggio adds that it can be difficult to strike the right balance between being compassionate and direct — but if we start thinking about criticism more mindfully, the conversation can be both helpful, and constructive. Here are four common mistakes we tend to make when giving feedback:
Making it one-sided
“One way to think about constructive criticism is to see it as a conversation,” Riggio notes. Instead of viewing the dialogue as single-sided, he says it’s helpful to tell someone, “‘We didn’t meet our goal on this. Let’s discuss what we can do about it.’” Riggio explains that making feedback a two-way discussion can help alleviate negative feelings, and show your colleague you’re compassionate about what they have to say. “Listen to the employee’s perspective and suggest that it is valid,” he suggests. “Turn it into collaborative problem-solving.”
Not offering constructive advice
Too often, we bring up a problem that we notice without offering a solution, and Riggio says this mistake is most common in the workplace. “I think the biggest mistake that supervisors make when providing feedback is being critical without providing constructive advice on how to improve,” he says. Instead of shaming someone for what they did wrong, try to provide your input in a way that’s direct and specific. “Give your perspective about what could be done to improve.”
In addition to how we communicate our feedback, Riggio says a concept called “person perception” can hold us back from truly believing the person can improve. “When evaluating someone’s performance, we over-attribute failure to something about the person (“she’s unmotivated” or “he’s lazy”) without taking into account the situational factors that influence performance,” he explains. Instead of generalizing, take a step back and look at what happened in the situation — was the initial expectation unrealistic? Did someone else slip up? Did the employee have the tools needed to reach the goal?
Many leaders swear by the “compliment sandwich” concept, where they wrap their crisitism in two positive traits, in hopes of not insulting the individual they’re talking to. But according to Riggio, this common tactic can also lead to excessively sugarcoating, which may end up burying the message in a pile of compliments. “One of the worst recommendations I’ve heard is, ‘Say something positive about performance, and then give them the negative,’ as if the one will offset the other,” Riggio says — and instead suggests getting straight to the point, in a way that’s both direct and helpful. “The goal is to give performance feedback in a direct, but constructive and supportive way,” he adds, “Not to sugarcoat it.”
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