Mastering Feedback: Tips for Giving Constructive Criticism

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  • August 9, 2023

It’s natural to worry about hurting other people with our feedback, especially if we remember a time that feedback hurt us. However, we all need feedback to grow. The tips in this article will help you navigate feedback without causing harm! 

Don’t use the 'sandwich' approach

Most people have been taught the way to make negative feedback go down easily is to sandwich it between two pieces of positive feedback. But this approach isn’t supported by research; it can make people feel manipulated, or like the positive feedback isn’t sincere.  Rather than giving these feedback sandwiches with nasty filling, just give sincere feedback on a regular basis, both positive and negative. That allows you to build trust and rapport over time, so that when critique becomes necessary, it’s grounded within an actual relationship, not just a couple of insincere throw-away comments. 


Be on the side of the person you’re critiquing  

Research shows that people are the least hurt by feedback when they feel the person giving the feedback is “on their side”. So if you’re worried a piece of feedback might be taken the wrong way, make sure the broader pattern of your words and actions show you’re trying to help the person you’re criticizing. If they know you believe in them and are rooting for them, they’ll be able to take even the harshest feedback without getting hurt.


Examine your own bias before speaking

Studies show people perform worse on tasks where they experience stereotype threats about them. So if you think a stereotype might be influencing how you judge someone’s abilities, don’t add to the damage. Spend some time thinking before you speak up. Make sure you separate facts and judgments and stick to the facts alone. And make sure you’re giving proper consideration to the facts that are contrary to the stereotypes, and not over-weighing the facts that match the stereotypes. 


9781523098187Consider power dynamics

Power dynamics and organizational hierarchy definitely influence how feedback is given and received. Although leaders need feedback as much as anyone, they may have a harder time getting honest feedback, especially if their reports have any past experiences with authorities who have received feedback in a volatile or retaliatory way.  As a result, anyone criticizing their boss or leadership probably feels even more strongly than the words they are speaking publicly. If you’re worried about how to give feedback to your boss, consider our book on the unwritten rules of managing up. And if you’re a leader and you want more feedback from your reports, make sure you create safe spaces where people can give feedback without experiencing negative consequences. 


Research who has the authority to act on your feedback9781523002955

The most painful feedback focuses on things the person has no way to actually fix. The reason customer service jobs are infamously painful isn’t just because customers vent their bad feelings on service people; it’s also because leadership and management rarely provide meaningful avenues for frontline workers to act on customer criticism. Feedback is only a gift when clear-cut routes to action are provided. Before you give feedback, consider: does this person have the power to act on your feedback, or does that power belong to someone else? If so, address your feedback to the person who actually has the authority to change the situation. 


Interpret their pushback using their social position

If someone doesn’t have the reaction to feedback you’re hoping for, it’s easy to call them “over-sensitive” or say they are “overreacting.” But are they? How should you think about this question?  Well, if they are less powerful than you, they actually have a lot to lose from pushing back. Pushing back is a calculated risk they wouldn’t take without a very good reason.  On the other hand, if they are more powerful than you, they may be unaccustomed to criticism and shocked that you dared to criticize them. When considering whether someone is “overreacting,” think about your respective social positions and adjust your understanding accordingly. 


Root the feedback in a shared purpose

Feedback is painful when it feels personal. One way to make feedback feel less personal is to make it about the purpose you’re working towards together. For example, instead of saying, “It’s so unprofessional when you use emojis in emails,” you could say, “Our goal is to build trust with some of our older and more traditional clients. I am concerned these clients may not associate your light-hearted emojis with the level of expertise you bring to our organization. I suggest dropping the emojis, because even though they are delightful, they definitely give the wrong impression.” If you frame the discussion to focus on the desired outcome, people won’t feel shamed for their personal qualities and will be able to adjust their behavior without a heavy heart. 


Make sure you proactively invite feedback

Feedback is a great deal less painful when you’re expecting it. If you don’t seem approachable, and people only approach you with feedback when your behavior has irritated them past all endurance, of course feedback is going to be painful. Create opportunities for people to approach you before the small problems become big ones.


Not all feedback needs to be taken!

Contrary to popular belief, being good at taking feedback doesn’t mean implementing every suggestion. If you’ve asked enough people for feedback, chances are some of the recommendations will contradict each other.  Being able to recognize unhelpful feedback and let it roll off your back, is just as important as being able to take prompt and grateful action on helpful feedback. Internalizing unfair feedback can start a vicious circle of self-doubt that actually sabotages your performance; whereas internalizing feedback that is helpful and fair will help you grow. Learn to tell the difference! 


Take on one topic at a time

When people feel threatened, they often try to deflect attention towards themselves by pushing negative attention toward others.  “Yeah, I do that– but you do it too! How is that fair?” or, “Okay, I’ve done that once, but my coworker does it all the time.” You can respond by saying, “It’s absolutely valid to say that I do this and your coworkers do this, and that absolutely must be addressed as well. However, we are taking it one thing at a time. Once we’ve discussed what happened with you, don’t worry, we will also be discussing what happened in these other situations.” That reassures them that they aren’t being uniquely blamed or singled out, and can help them calm down and listen to how they need to change. 


There are definitely valid reasons why people are frightened to give feedback or have conflict-avoidant responses to troublesome situations. Poor emotional regulation, unsafe power dynamics, unjust biases, or defending inflated egos can all make feedback situations really ugly. However, if you are mindful of the things in this article, your feedback conversations are more likely to be successful. Good luck!

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