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How to Give and Get More Constructive Criticism

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It’s 9 a.m. on Monday, and you’re kicking yourself for being the last person in the office to sign up for your annual performance review. Not only are you over-the-top nervous about what your boss is about to tell you, but you’re also groggy and in a post-weekend funk. It’s no wonder you’re so tired. You were up most of the night stressing about the review. A lot is riding on this — a salary increase, a promotion and, most of all, your self-esteem.

You might be surprised to know that your boss is also dreading your review. 

You and your boss aren’t the only ones who dread performance reviews. In fact, "neuroscience research has shown that providing negative performance appraisal feedback causes actual physical pain to both the employee and the manager,” writes Ray Williams, author of Psychology Today’s Wired for Success” blog.

So, how do you detoxify the process of receiving or giving constructive criticism? We’ve gathered some suggestions that should make constructive criticism less painful and more productive for both manager and employee.

If you’re the one receiving constructive criticism:
1. Prepare for your performance review in advance
Keep notes about feedback and accomplishments throughout the year so you can reference them and point to areas of improvement during your review. Also create a list of goals for the coming year that you can share with your boss.

2. Let the message sink in before you respond
When your boss gives constructive criticism that hurts your feelings, resist the impulse to react defensively, to deny its validity or to blame others. Instead, take a deep breath, be quiet and listen to what they have to say. If you are extremely upset by your employer’s feedback, it is generally acceptable to request some time outside of the review to process the information before responding.

3. Get clarification about your manager’s message
Once you feel calm and in control, begin asking questions about the feedback to ensure you understand what they are referencing. Then ask for recommendations on how you can improve.

4. Schedule follow-ups
Meet with your manager some time after the review to evaluate how strategies you have put in place to address your performance issues are working out. If you don’t have one already, this could be an excellent time to request that you and your manager schedule a regular weekly, biweekly or monthly check-in meeting.

5. Welcome feedback as the best way to grow
Remind yourself that there is value to constructive criticism. As painful as it may be, try to think of it as a learning opportunity. Levo, an online career consultant company for Millennials, puts it like this: “Feedback is the greatest gift someone can give you. If you process it effectively and stay open to getting it — no matter how difficult it is to hear in the moment — you will have a much better shot of realising your full potential.”

If you're the manager:
1. Make panic attacks a thing of the past
Review performance on a regular basis. If you have been providing constructive criticism and praise to your employees throughout the year, the annual review won’t present big surprises for them — and you won’t be the bearer of unexpected bad news.

2. Want better results? Spare the sandwich approach
For decades, managers have been taught to use the “” of feedback delivery. As the theory goes, employees respond better to negative feedback when it is preceded and followed by positive feedback. But critics contend that the sandwich theory is counterproductive since it can make employees feel manipulated, make managers seem less trustworthy and dilute the impact of negative as well as positive feedback.

Instead, many experts recommend separating constructive criticism from praise and presenting positive and negative feedback directly.

“Effective leaders are transparent about the strategies they use when working with others,” says Roger Schwarz in the Harvard Business Review. “Giving negative feedback transparently means respecting your direct reports, not controlling or alienating them; makes both your negative and positive feedback feel more genuine to your direct reports; and lowers your discomfort and their anxiety.”

3. Be specific when giving feedback
Vague feedback such as “You’re not acting professionally,” or “You’re good with people,” isn’t helpful since it doesn’t spell out what employees are doing right or wrong. Instead, give feedback citing specific examples. “I overheard your call to the client on Thursday afternoon, and was concerned when you seemed to be rushing him off the phone,” or “I thought you handled the challenging situation during Tuesday’s meeting with that client gracefully. You answered all of her questions competently and gave her the assurances she needed.”

4. Feedback should never feel like a personal attack
Always provide negative feedback in terms of the behaviour, not the character of your employee. For example, never tell an employee they are “lazy.” Instead, ask them if they are feeling unmotivated or bored with their work. Then see if there is a way of helping them to bring more enthusiasm to their job.

5. Lead by example
Your employees aren’t the only ones who can benefit from constructive criticism. Create an environment in which employees feel safe sharing their opinions and providing feedback about your management style, and company policies. Elicit their ideas for how you can reward, motivate and help them to work more productively.