So, you’re working with someone whose work isn’t exactly what you need it to be, and you need to ask them to do it differently. Maybe you’re their manager, or maybe you’re a peer who’s overseeing the project they’re working on. Maybe the correction is relatively minor, or maybe it’s a big deal. Either way, if you’re like a lot of people, having to tell a colleague that they’re doing something wrong makes you anxious. But if it’s done well, giving constructive criticism doesn’t have to be awkward or unpleasant for you or your co-worker. Here’s how to do it.
1. First, know that giving and receiving corrections at work is very, very normal.
It’s both common and normal to need to make tweaks to a project or the way someone is approaching their work. Part of that is because none of us are mind readers and so people aren’t always on the same page initially about how a project should play out. Part of it is that none of us are perfect, and we make mistakes or approach things sub-optimally. Corrective feedback isn’t a referendum on anyone’s value as a person — it’s just a normal and expected part of the process of improving work.
2. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
If you’re feeling anxious about giving someone feedback, put yourself in their shoes. Do you resent your own manager when she asks you to approach something differently? Or does it feel like a pretty normal and expected interaction? (It should be the latter, assuming your manager doesn’t handle feedback like a jerk.) Plus, you probably want to know how you could improve your work and wouldn’t appreciate someone withholding important feedback from you out of fear of awkwardness — thus leaving you to repeat the same mistake or work quality problem over and over. Assume that whoever you need to deliver feedback to also appreciates knowing how to make their work better.
This is important for everyone, but it’s especially crucial for managers. You can’t shy away from giving your employees feedback if you’re the one in charge; you have a professional and ethical obligation to talk to them about where they stand and how they could do better.
3. Be thoughtful about your timing.
While you need to be committed to giving feedback if you manage people or projects, that doesn’t mean that you should give it whenever it occurs to you without thinking about your timing. If someone is having a tough day or a tough week, or if they’re clearly harried and focused on something higher-priority, wait until they’re in a calmer and more receptive place. (That said, don’t wait forever. Some bad weeks stretch into bad months, and you can’t put feedback on hold for that long. But if the circumstances allow for it, try to be emotionally intelligent about your timing.)
4. Don’t serve up a feedback sandwich.
If you’ve ever read a management book, you’ve probably heard of the “feedback sandwich”: a technique where you sandwich criticism in between two compliments. The idea is that by praising the person at the start and end, you’ll make it easier for them to accept the criticism.
It’s a bad technique. Don’t use it! For one thing, people will pick up on what you’re doing and your praise will start to seem insincere. People will also start bracing for criticism every time you praise them. Plus, if you bury your real message in the middle of the conversation, it can get lost.
5. Be matter-of-fact.
The person receiving your feedback is likely to take their cues from you. If you sound tense and worried about their reaction, or uncomfortable having the conversation at all, people are much more likely to react as if this is a tense, uncomfortable conversation. Even if you do secretly feel anxious, showing that will only make the conversation harder on the other person. The best thing you can do is be matter-of-fact — as if this is just like any other work conversation. Think of the tone you’d use to say “hmmm, the printer needs more toner,” or “could you grab that call for me so I’m not late to my meeting?” You want a similar tone here.
By approaching the conversation matter-of-factly, you’ll convey: “this is normal, it isn’t the end of your career, and you don’t need to hide in the bathroom for the rest of the day.”
And truly, you should want feedback to be a regular, normal thing, because regular feedback leads to better work outcomes. Feedback shouldn’t be rare, or reserved for a Big Deal Meeting with a box of tissues carefully placed on the table between you.
6. Put the feedback in context.
You don’t want to go into the conversation thinking you’re making a minor correction and have the other person leave thinking their whole project was a disaster. Conversely, you don’t want them to leave thinking something is minor if in fact it’s quite serious. So make sure that you put the feedback in context. If it’s minor, say it’s minor, and explain that the rest of the work was good. If it’s a big deal, don’t berate them or be a jerk, but make sure that your words convey the significance of the problem.
7. Be clear about what should change.
It might sound obvious, but sometimes people explain that something was wrong or needs to be done “better” without explaining what “better” means. It’s easy to assume that the other person has the same mental frame of reference that you do — which can lead to using shorthand like “this draft needs to be more polished” or “make this more punchy.” It might be totally clear to you what you mean by that, but the person you’re talking to might have a different idea of what you mean (or no idea). So spell out what you’re looking for. For example, instead of “more polished,” you might say, “When you send me a draft, can you make sure it’s fact-checked, proofread, formatted correctly, and ready to send out?”
It’s also smart to check to make sure the other person understands the feedback the way you intend. Especially if something is fairly complex, it can help to end the conversation with something like, “To make sure we’re both on the same page, do you want to run through your takeaways for the next draft so we can both make sure we covered everything?”
8. Be open to the other person’s perspective.
Feedback shouldn’t be a monologue. It should be a discussion, and it’s important to listen to the other person’s perspective. They might tell you something that changes your mind, and you don’t want to be so committed to your initial assessment that you don’t hear it if they do.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.