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How to Give Constructive Criticism to Sensitive Employees

How to Give Constructive Criticism to Sensitive Employees

Not everyone takes criticism well. Some people take criticism personally and get their feelings hurt, others turn defensive and act out in anger. This can be especially true in the workplace.

Sometimes, you even deliver constructive criticism yourself. When it is correctly given, criticism helps improve issues in the workplace. If you are not careful with your criticism, you risk offending the employee or causing a workplace incident. If you do not say anything at all, you are ultimately hurting the employee and setting them up for failure later down the line. 

Constructive criticism helps employees succeed in their jobs and advance in their professional development. According to a non-scientific Forbes survey of over 28,000 people, workers who respond to constructive criticism effectively are 42 percent more likely to report loving their job. 

Do not think of criticism as an insult. Constructive criticism is meant to help. However, if you have a sensitive employee, it is possible he or she initially takes the criticism personally. If you know the employee is sensitive, consider using the following tips to help deliver constructive criticism.

The Three-Step Formula

Many managers use a three-step formula for delivering constructive criticism, especially to sensitive employees. The formula is focused around drawing out the worker’s positive traits and framing the criticism as a gap in their usually excellent areas of performance. The three-step cycle is as follows:

  • Give positive reinforcement.
  • Give the criticism.
  • Identify action for improvement.

With positive reinforcement, identify a quality the worker is already performing excellently. Try to provide specific examples where the worker demonstrated these qualities, otherwise, he or she may think you are delivering generic praise. After you discuss the positive, switch over to discussing the areas where the employee needs to improve. 

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After you deliver the criticism, the conversation is not over. You do not want the employee leaving the meeting with a focus on the negative. Closeout any conversation in which you give constructive criticism with a clear action the worker can take or behavior they can exhibit often to improve his or her performance. 

By letting the worker know what he or she can do, you are showing your faith in his or her ability to work through whatever you criticized them for. Using this formula simultaneously challenges the worker to achieve his or her potential while reinforcing the existence and nature of their potential and uplifting his or her confidence.

Making Sure Your Criticism Is Constructive

Not all criticism is constructive. To make sure your criticism is received effectively, you must make it constructive, especially when the recipient is particularly sensitive. What makes criticism constructive is if it raises the recipient’s self-awareness in a manner to empower the worker to develop and improve in his or her work. Qualities of constructive feedback include the following:

  • Focused on a particular issue.
  • Based not on feelings but on observations.
  • Provide specific information.
  • Promote improvement and development.

Constructive feedback can come in both positive and negative forms. Negative constructive criticism conveys an unfavorable judgment of the worker and is redirecting or correcting. Positive constructive criticism conveys a favorable judgment of the worker and is reinforcing. 

Both types of constructive criticism can be useful, with each one more appropriate for different employees and situations. Figuring out which type works best with the worker you are currently faced with is part of successfully giving effective constructive criticism.

In general, the preferred method for delivering constructive criticism in public is positively with praise and reinforcement. The best method for delivering negatively with critiques is in private. 

It may seem negative constructive criticism is never desirable or appropriate, but the truth is, in different studies, between 57 and 72 percent of workers preferred corrective feedback over praise and reinforcement, as they found it more relevant to their professional development. This can be especially helpful for those in internship programs and just starting out in the professional world.

Responses to Different Reactions

Sensitive employees can respond to constructive criticism ineffectively several different ways, with an emotional response, by getting defensive or by outright failing to accept the criticism. If the worker reacts emotionally to your criticism, start by assessing whether the reaction is out of the ordinary or typical for the individual. 

If it is out of the ordinary for the worker, there is a good chance something else is happening with him or her. In this case, set the conversation aside for a better time. If the behavior is common, you must address the person’s inability to take constructive criticism well, the same way you would address any other critique. 

Point out the person’s potential and praise the parts of his or her performance meriting praise. Then, point to this problem accepting constructive criticism as the very thing keeping the person from improving his or her performance and achieving full potential. Close by suggesting ways to receive constructive criticism differently than he or she has until this point. 

Emphasize both the employee’s value to the company and the value of taking constructive criticism for anyone’s professional development. Remove the stigma of constructive criticism as signaling failure or inadequacy but rather as a career development tool.

A defensive reaction to constructive criticism needs to be handled delicately, otherwise, you risk getting into a fight with your employee. If the worker reacts to your constructive criticism by justifying his or her actions and explaining how they were right to begin with, the person is likely unaware of his or her own errors or fallibility. In cases like this, simply state you understand there is more than one way to do things, but you would prefer this type of situation be handled a specific way in the future.

Other workers may react to criticism by smiling, nodding and making all appearances of listening to you and absorbing what you are saying only to go back and make the same errors again. With this kind of worker, make sure you get through to him or her before you end the conversation. 

Be clear, direct and specific in your feedback. Come prepared with examples to demonstrate the issue you present. Have the worker repeat back to you what he or she heard so you can assess how effectively you got your message across.

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