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How to deliver constructive criticism

Focus on end results to eliminate the emotional sting and to improve performance

If you’re like a lot of people, you’d rather do anything than give negative feedback. Even when it is well-intentioned, criticism isn’t easy to deliver. It’s anxiety-producing both for the giver of the negative feedback and for the receiver.
As a result, most of us avoid giving negative feedback, which, of course, fixes nothing.

Failing to let workers know when they are not meeting job requirements means you missed an opportunity. In fact, it hurts on many fronts, says Jade Reeve, a manager at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), a national, non-profit organization focused on agri-business human resource issues.

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Sad depressed farmer sitting on the tractor.

“Those conversations are never easy, but they need to happen — and quickly,” Reeve says. “When you avoid the situation, you are denying your workers the opportunity to learn and improve.”

You also run the risk of hurting workplace morale and overall productivity, continues Reeve. “Other workers may start to believe that poor performance has no consequences.”

The job is easier when you frame it as constructive feedback, says Reeve. Constructive feedback puts the focus on support and understanding, rather than criticism and blame, she says. This helps to minimize the feelings of shame, anger, or helplessness that a worker can feel when they hear that their work is “not good enough.”

Pam Paquet, a psychologist and business consultant in Chilliwack, B.C., agrees. “There is truly a skill to how you give people bad news but still remain supportive and positive,” she says.

Fortunately, it is a skill that can be learned.

First off, before initiating a conversation with an employee whose performance is lacking, Paquet suggests considering if a correction is the best way to proceed. Ask yourself, if this happens again, is it a problem? Will this help the person perform better in the future? How much of an impact did the error create?

Also make sure the standards you are using are being applied consistently to all employees and in all situations, adds Deborah Powell, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Guelph.

If you decide the matter needs to be brought to the attention of the employee, the timing is critical. Choose a time shortly after the problem has become evident, but long enough after the event to ensure emotions have cooled down, she advises.

Before proceeding, create a plan for the conversation, says Powell. In addition to pointing out problem behaviours, managers should provide suggestions for ways to improve.

It’s also imperative the employee has a clear understanding of the issue.

Feedback should always be based on observation rather than opinion, says Reeve. She gives the following example to differentiate. “The farm equipment has not been repaired on schedule, and we have had to delay the harvest because of this” is an observation.“I think you’re getting lazy and spending more time thinking about the weekend than your repair duties,” is an opinion. Both describe the same situation, but if you stick to observation, you can work with the employee to determine how it can be done better next time.

However, making it about the behaviour and not the person can be challenging on family farms where the lines between work and personal relationships are blurred, says Paquet. We may be quick to judge and to let the past dictate how we interact on a professional basis, she says.

Gordon Colledge, a farm family coach from Lethbridge has seen this scenario many times. Disputes dating back years can result in a buildup of resentment, anger and frustration, he says. “When people avoid talking about issues, it takes a toll on relationships and health, until one day it explodes,” he says.

At the root of the problem is the need to communicate better with one another, says Colledge.

The key is to focus on the behaviour and learn better ways to express ourselves, he says.

In fact, bringing in a professional to help train both family members and non-family employees to better understand each other can be really helpful, he says.

Paquet agrees. Make it about how the behaviour is affecting the business, not how you are personally impacted, she says. “Avoid making it personal by saying things like: “You’ve let me down” or “You make me so mad.”

To keep the situation from escalating into the emotional realm, sometimes it is easier to think about what

didn’t work in the past and then to try something different this time, continues Paquet.

Another strategy is to have formal meetings with an agenda which can help professionalize the feedback process, says Paquet. “Regularly review what the challenges have been and what team members will do differently going forward.”

However, Paquet warns that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to successfully giving constructive feedback. Each instance has its own specifics.

For instance, the best way to handle constructive criticism will depend on the receiver as well as the giver, she says, and there may be generational, gender or other personal differences. Learning more about the individual worker can make the process go more smoothly.

Listening is also important, says Powell. Be sure to allow the worker an opportunity to have their voice heard and to have input into the solutions, and make sure they see that you are listening. Besides, what they say may surprise you, she says. “Employees may have different ideas about how best to perform the task.”

Done right, Reeve sums up, “constructive criticism can have a positive effect because it gives workers clear steps towards improving their performance and lets them know that their employer is committed to helping them succeed.”

Resources

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council has a subscription-based HR Tool Kit available on its website.


Tips for giving constructive feedback

From Jade Reeve, CAHRC:

  • Confirm that a problem exists. First, describe the problem to the worker, focusing on how the performance or behaviour issue disrupts the productivity, safety, quality of the work, or the workplace. Next, ask the worker whether they agree that a performance problem exists. If the worker doesn’t agree that a performance expectation has not been met, it will be hard to discuss the issue.
  • Identify the causes of the problem. Don’t offer your own opinions. Instead, ask the worker to analyze the causes of the problem from their own perspective. This may uncover information you weren’t aware of and give you valuable insights into what has gone wrong and how to correct it.
  • Focus on the worker’s work. Never say that personality or attitudes are responsible for poor performance. As individuals, we have full control over our behaviours but not always our personalities. If you refer to a worker’s attitudes, they are likely to feel personally attacked and become defensive. However, if you focus on the impact of the worker’s behaviour on the performance and behaviours of others, this brings a more objective approach to the issue.
  • Find mutually agreeable solutions. Before any performance meeting with a worker, you must have an opinion based on the information you have, but you must also leave room for other interpretations. Ask the worker for ways to resolve the problem before offering your own ideas. The worker’s perspective may change your assessment of the situation and suggest a readjustment of the remedy you had in mind. If the worker is going to improve their behaviour, then they must contribute to the solution. If you present an action plan without input from the worker, there is a high probability that the worker will not fully commit to it.
  • Time your feedback well. Feedback is most meaningful to workers when there is a short time between the occurrence of the behaviour and getting feedback.
  • Ensure understanding. Feedback should be clear, concise, and complete. Make sure the worker understands the feedback by having them repeat it in their own words or by asking them questions.

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