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How to Give Critical Feedback That Won't Crush Anyone's Self-Esteem

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Newly promoted to a management position? In addition to creating regular reports and attending frequent meetings, you’ll need to deliver quite a bit of critical feedback to your team, too. The process doesn’t need to feel stiff or be uncomfortable. There are ways to deliver hard feedback that can help the person on the receiving end grow professionally and even come away from the meeting with a positive outlook. Here’s how.

Ask Permission to Give Feedback

This is one of the top tips from leadership and HR consultants. But don’t roll your eyes just yet thinking that means you need to wait until your employee feels like talking to you. Schedule a meeting and come with a very brief script in mind. Starting out with one sentence, such as “Do you mind if I give you feedback?” before diving into the details acts to lower resistance and build up trust. While there’s a small chance they’ll say no, especially if it’s the same day as a perceived difficult moment, there’s a much greater chance they’ll take your question as a sign of respect. For those times when they do decline feedback, be sure to follow up with direct and time-based questions, such as “I can move our meeting to Tuesday. If not, what day and time next week work for you?”

Be Specific

Telling your direct report you don’t like a presentation they prepared for a client is not helpful. Leave out language that makes references to personal preferences altogether. Instead, use your meeting to discuss the details of why the report didn’t work, didn’t meet expectations, or perhaps why the client was unhappy. Explain the report was beautifully crafted, free of typos and well-written, however, it lacked specific items including X or Y the client was expecting per the last conversation. As you explain the reasons it fell short, also ask probing questions to ensure your employee understands why this information is critical to the client. This will help reinforce that it’s not your opinion, but rather a matter of meeting pre-agreed upon expectations.

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Detail the Positive

As mentioned above, don’t dive into the criticism pool without preparing the waters. Management studies have found that the optimal ratio of positive to negative criticism is 6-to-1. That’s six pieces of good for every one negative piece of criticism. That might seem like a lot, but our brains focus on the negative far more than the positive, meaning the receiver of bad news is more likely to shut down or tune out completely if the conversation isn’t weighted more heavily towards what’s working. Once they shut down, even your best feedback is likely to be unproductive because they won’t be in the right place to digest it in a meaningful way.

Provide Areas of Improvement

Don’t stop at simply offering specific suggestions to fix the immediate problem, offer long-term areas of improvements that will help the employee develop professionally. For example, don’t say “Sally, you’re a terrible public speaker and I can’t have you deliver the client presentation next week.” As part of the conversation, detail what doesn’t work about their public speaking and why. Then work with them to create an action plan for improvement. You might suggest first practicing in front of a mirror, then delivering an internal presentation a few months later, working up to giving a client-facing presentation the following quarter. In addition, discuss the additional benefits that the employee will reap from making improvements. If they need to master client presentations before there’s any chance of promotion, lay out the improvement plan as part of a larger career development path.

About the Author

Kristin Amico is a career and business writer who spent more than a decade managing creative teams at digital agencies. She has written for The Muse, The Independent and USA Today.

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