How To Deliver Effective Constructive Criticism

Delivering constructive criticism is an essential skill for managers to master if they want to be successful in their roles. Offering constructive criticism the right way has a high correlation to overall team success, according to research by academic Emily Heaphy and business consultant Marcial Losada.

Their research showed managers of low performing teams offer on average .36 compliments for every bit of constructive criticism. On medium performing teams, managers deliver on average 1.9 compliments for every piece of constructive criticism. But on high performing teams, managers average a whopping 5.6 pieces of positive feedback for every piece of constructive criticism!

It’s pretty plain to see that increasing positive feedback cultivates high performance. Let’s take a look at why this correlation exists, and how you can deliver effective constructive criticism.

What the Compliment Sandwich Does

Since medium-performing (a euphemism for mediocre) teams offer two compliments for every bit of negative feedback, it’s probably safe to assume that these managers are still eating the compliment sandwich.

Most managers have heard of the compliment sandwich, or the idea that ‘sandwiching’ constructive feedback between two compliments will deliver effective results. The problem with the compliment sandwich is that it’s not only stale, it also makes the negative feedback the ‘meat’ of the sandwich.

Here’s what a compliment sandwich looks like:

Manager: “I finally had a chance to look over your proposal, and I like the way you laid it out. I still think it needs a lot of work, and I’d like a revision of it by Monday. But, I really appreciate that you turned it in on time.”

This offering of criticism lessens the importance of the negative feedback, and takes away the sincerity of the positive feedback. It’s uninspiring, and will result in mediocre work.

How to Develop the 5:1 Mindset

Since you know managers of high-performing teams deliver positive and negative feedback at a 5:1 ratio, you know how important it is to offer feedback the right way.

When a coworker or employee submits work for you to review, often your first instinct is to look for mistakes and weak points in their work. Unfortunately, this mindset makes it very difficult to identify five things you like about their work. Instead of looking for weaknesses, first look for things that you genuinely love about their work. Your first review should be only looking for things that you like.

Only after discovering the parts of their work that make it great should you begin finding places to suggest improvements. Your goal is to make their good work even better, and offering suggestions to improve their work will foster a stronger work environment where employees believe they can succeed.

Here’s what great feedback looks like:

Manager: “I finally got a chance to look over your proposal. There are a lot of good things in here. I really like the marketing ideas and the way you’ve laid it out. It’s a really strong draft, and I think even if we sent it out the way it is, we’d be fine. But there’s something about the product description that I think we could do a little better. It’s not bad, but I think there’s room for improvement. Other than that, I don’t think we need to change anything else about it.”

The employee hearing that message is going to take pride in their work, and develop a strong desire to make it even better.

The reality is, there won’t always be five good things to say. But if you take steps to consciously change the way you provide feedback, you’ll see a great change in your workforce – their morale, productivity, and quality of work will all improve.

Watch a 1-minute preview of “Creating an Incredible Company Culture: How to Deliver Effective Constructive Criticism” from The BizLibrary Collection here:

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Derek researches, discusses, and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. He regularly interviews L&D and HR professionals, sharing their insight on trends and best practices that help organizations create stronger training programs, and help to grow their employees and their business.