How to critique without sounding rude

Critiquing without making enemies or hurting egos is not an easy task. How do you give an employee a talk on how to dress for work or how to eat at a fine dining restaurant? Is there a way to criticise work that can do with some improvement? There are ways to provide positive feedback, without being overbearing.

I have dabbled in a lot of things and some of my most exciting experiences come from my having been a corporate trainer. The training sessions were generally for individuals at the managerial level. However, I did conduct soft skill sessions for employees at the entry-level executives as well. It was at one such session that a young employee asked me how he should handle criticism from his boss. He told me that his boss was "vicious" in his criticism and nothing this employee did was ever met with approval. Over a few sessions, with other groups, I realised that this wasn't an isolated case; many employees were disgruntled with the way their bosses treated them. The one thing that stood out, in each interaction, was that the majority of them felt that they were treated shabbily. They didn't speak of their work being criticised, it was always about them being belittled.

The above narration is to emphasise the fact that critics rarely put in an effort to mellow the tone. They blurt out their opinions and in the bargain crush many an ego. It is easy to trample over others, especially when you are in a position of command.

The main purpose of criticism is to get good results. To make better, something that has been produced or exists. To have things work out as per plan. Any criticism that is harsh does not serve this purpose, entirely. It stems from a false sense of power. It might get you desired results, but not acceptance. A good leader always motivates with constructive criticism.

The corporate world today revolves around teamwork. Even if you are at the helm, you still remain a part of the team. The leader of the pack remains responsible for the group. Communication becomes important, as does acceptance. To ensure that they remain at the top of their game many, managers device strategies to meet deadlines and accomplish tasks. They begin to critique others work, but instead of providing positive feedback, they rely on terrorising (if I may use the word) those working with them. This creates an extremely inimical work environment.

Giving constructive criticism is an acquired skill that all good managers need to master. A couple of methods on how constructive criticism should be given has already been discussed. This piece brings a couple of other methods that can help you master the skill.

Be to the point

It is important that any feedback or criticism that you provide is specific. When you are explicit with the feedback it is more potent and purposeful. Learn to differentiate between ambiguous and clear-cut feedback.

This is what ambiguous comments and clear-cut feedback look like –

  • Ambiguous – I'd like you to add some solid content into the presentation to get the client interested
  • Clear-cut feedback – Your presentation is definitely good, but if you include a few slides on the company's achievements in the last quarter, it'll make a better impact on the client

Notice how the first suggestion is vague. The individual does not know what you have in mind. They might have another concept of 'solid content', something quite dissimilar to yours. The second example provides precise details of what you want. When you provide exact feedback, you also help your team member to get the job done quickly. They are not left groping for ideas and trying to figure out what is it that you want. Ideas begin ticking in their brain the instant you tell them what you want. Ideas tick even when clarity is lacking, but they lead to confusion. The second feedback is more concise and provides clarity, leaving no room for doubt or confusion – it tells immediately things that need to be corrected.

That is not to say that all vague comments are silly or wrong, but it is better to be specific, so you are understood better. Look at it this way, your clear feedback ensures that your team member delivers what you want.

I'll illustrate this with another set of examples –

  • Ambiguous – You put in a lot of effort getting that report ready, but I did not like it. I feel it could have been better

There is nothing constructive about this feedback. What did you not like? How does one tell which part did not meet your approval?

  • Clear-cut feedback – You did an excellent job, but there is room for improvement. The data would be easier to read if it is in tabular columns and the colour themes a little less bright. Also, include a few slides on comparisons instead of just making a mention of it. It'll give the client a better idea of why our product is better. The features are important, so don't bunch them in one slide – dedicate separate slides for each feature along with images. Overall great job!

You basically praise the individual and provide feedback. It is a great way to maintain a good rapport with your teammates, lift spirits and get the job done to perfection.

Key to providing specific comments that get actionable results in a nutshell

  • Remain objective – Let people know what needs to be done. Do not do a vague analysis and expect them to read your mind
  • Key points are important – Break your criticism into small, actionable feedback. By actionable I mean something that can produce results. Provide a reason for each point. When you say you need 'x' done, explain why it is important
  • Provide examples – Your job is to get the work done to your satisfaction. When you provide examples you get into the brain of the other and make it sync with yours. They get a gist of what you want. You do not need to point out everything, just a few key points so they become responsive to what you have in mind

Remark on stuff that can be changed or acted upon

Criticism at the workplace need not be just work related. There can be other areas where individuals need to improve. This can be tricky, because how do you tell someone their dress sense is not suitable for the work environment or that they lack fine dining etiquette, which is so much a part of the corporate world. I am aware that the HR in some offices sends out memos to anyone who is inappropriately attired or when the strict dress code not followed.

The aim is to make all individuals fit into the work environment, even if that means altering who they are. It is all for the sake of discipline and company policies. So, how do you go about it? As always the feedback should focus on improvement and not the individual. The focus should be on things that can be changed, things over which the individual has control. Critiquing on things that can help the individual fit into the corporate mould is better than critiquing the individual.

When you are critiquing things that are not work related you actually get into an individual's 'personal space'. It can become uncomfortable for both, if not handled properly. You need to strike the right balance when critiquing.

Let's understand this through a few examples. Suppose there's an employee whose attire does not match the dress code of your office. You can always issue a circular mentioning how the staffs are expected to dress or you can handle the situation through personal interaction.

  • Set a meeting with the individual, maybe take them out to a business lunch or just catch a corner table at the office cafeteria. Begin by telling the individual how you appreciate their work and that you see tremendous potential in them. Make it an anecdote about yourself, how you were when you started and how you learned the ropes along the way. Bring dressing into the conversation and how you learned that power dressing is important in a business environment. Send out positive vibes that tell the person you mean well and are only trying to be helpful. You do not want to embarrass them
  • Table etiquettes are again part of the corporate world. Employees have to entertain and/or dine with business guests. How one conducts themselves at such events is crucial. The organisation can perhaps have a workshop organised where proper dining etiquettes are the focus. Alternatively, you can tell the employee that they will be attending a business lunch with clients at a fine dining restaurant. And if they need help with the how to's and what to's at the table, then you are willing to help. You can joke about how you struggled to make this transition of eating with the hand to eating with cutlery

Whatever you are critiquing keep the conversation amiable. You do not want to put the other person on the defensive. Make them feel as though they are your friend, and that you were like them once. Be empathetic, and target only those aspects that can be changed. This does not mean you go on a witch hunt, wanting to change everyone and everything. The idea is not to create clones of you but to get people to fit into the work environment.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

Follow Juana or read 549 articles authored by Juana

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Author: Partha K.26 Feb 2017 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 6

An excellent article from the author! I also have some first-hand experience on this issue. Some senior officers think that it is always necessary to find faults with their subordinates. So they criticize for the sake of criticism. Such criticisms should not be taken seriously. Some senior officers also suffer from inferiority complex. They also criticize due to their inferiority complex. The juniors must learn to differentiate between sincere and genuine criticism from absurd criticism without any substance. But this also requires mental strength and experience (on the part of junior/subordinate officers).

The author has aptly stated that the ultimate purpose of criticism to help improvement. For this, a senior must have to analyse the paper/power-point presentation/statement presented by the junior. If the senior officer doesn't have the ability, experience or knowledge to analyse the material presented by the subordinate officer, the criticism will be without any substance and can't help the subordinate to improve in future. Such senior officer will remain only a boss, he/she can never become a mentor.

I congratulate the author on this useful article on human resource management.

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