Performance Feedback: How to give constructive criticism

performance feedbackMost managers, in my experience, don’t find it too difficult to give negative performance feedback (criticism) on the quantifiable element of their staff member’s performance. They don’t find it too difficult to say something like ‘We agreed you would produce 30 units a day. This record shows you’re producing 20. Can you agree there’s a problem here with your performance?

Performance Feedback : The criticism challenge

What many managers find much more challenging is giving criticism on the unquantifiable elements of the staff member’s performance. This is how managers often describe this type of issue to me

· He’s got a poor attitude

· She lacks confidence

· He’s not a team player

· She’s arrogant

Clearly it’s not too hard to see the problem managers have with giving this type of performance feedback. It is difficult to see a conversation going well based on an opening line ‘I want to talk to you about your attitude. It stinks’ (and if you think I’ve made that last statement up, I’m sorry to say I haven’t)

If the managers in your business have difficulty giving negative performance feedback here are some ideas on how you can help them

Performance feedback: How to give constructive criticism

The first step is to focus on behaviours, and only the behaviours. What you will notice from our manager’s statements above is that they are talking about the staff member’s characteristics or personality traits. As you may have noticed from your own experience, criticising a person’s characteristics or personality traits very rarely works well. If ever. Performance feedback specifically focused on behaviours is much more likely to be understood and accepted. Here’s why

1. Behaviours vs. Characteristics or Personality Traits

When a staff member receives criticism on their behaviours they generally ‘hear’ that criticism on the cognitive or intellectual level (‘in the head’)

When they receive criticism of their characteristics or personality they generally ‘hear’ that on the emotional level (’in the heart’)

Criticism based on our behaviours is easier to accept than criticism of our personality or characteristics because it is based on

· what we do


· who we are

Also, although most people believe they can change what they do. Very few people believe they can change who they are

A couple of examples:

A) If I were to say to you

When you turn up late to team briefings it causes a problem (Behaviour)

It would probably feel easier to accept than if I were to say

Your lack of commitment to the team is causing a problem (Characteristic / Personality trait)

B) When you interrupt me in front of a client it causes a problem (Behaviour)

Would probably feel easier to accept than

Your arrogance is causing a problem (Characteristic /Personality trait)

So, performance feedback based on behaviours is both a) depersonalised and b) focused on the belief that the person can change. This makes it easier to accept and consequently easier to give

2. Facts vs. Assumptions

The second reason is that it’s easier to give criticism on behaviours is because behavioural criticism is based on facts not assumptions


A) When I talk about you turning up late for a meeting – that’s a fact

When I talk about your lack of commitment – that’s an assumption

B) When I talk about there being three errors in the report you gave me – that’s a fact

When I talk about your lack of interest in your work – that’s an assumption

The reality is I can’t actually know what your level of commitment or interest in your work is – I can only assume, or guess, based on my interpretation of your behaviours

But it is assumption and it is guesswork and, putting aside any moral objection you might have to making assumptions about a person, assumptions can be argued against and facts cannot. And that’s why it’s a problem

Another example

Have you ever said to anyone ‘You just don’t listen!’?

Have you ever had the following response?

Your assumption that I don’t listen to you is absolutely correct. I rarely, if ever, pay attention to anything anyone else says. Thank you for pointing this out to me. I shall now endeavour to hang on to every word you say’

I thought not

Almost any performance feedback based on characteristics or personality trait will be met with an argument

You don’t listen’

‘I do’


You’re not committed enough

‘I am’

And so it goes on

3. Objectivity

When you focus performance feedback on behaviours you can give examples:

Yesterday you came to the meeting 20 minutes late

There were three errors in the report you gave me

What examples give you is objectivity – because you’re talking about facts – and criticism that is seen as being objective is always easier to understand and accept

A summary of the benefits of focusing performance feedback on behaviours

a) It depersonalises the criticism as much as is possible – it’s not about the person. It is about what they do or have done

b) Most people believe they can change what they do. Very few people believe they can change who they are

c) It’s difficult to disagree with facts. It’s easy to disagree with assumption

d) Facts bring objectivity. Objective criticism is easier to accept and easier to give

Want to know more about performance feedback?

Motivating your staff to improve their performance with positive criticism’ is a video in my 10 Minute Management Toolkit series. It teaches managers a step by step approach for giving negative performance feedback – as positive criticism – in a way that the staff member finds easy to undertand, easy to accept and that seriously improves performance. You can read about the video content and find out how to view a preview video HERE

feedbackOr take a look at my e-book HERE

2 Responses to Performance Feedback: How to give constructive criticism

  1. jane says:

    Think this is such a good point – too many managers make assumptions and feed back on their own feelings and judgements about someone rather than their behaviours – it’s also important I think for managers to focus on observed behaviours as you do in the example above, rather than hearsay….’you were 20 minutes late for the meeting yesterday’ rather than ‘I heard you were 20 minutes late yesterday’…leading to ‘I wasn’t – who said I was?’…bringing another set of problems!

  2. joan says:

    Thanks Jane. Good comment from you on the ‘heresay’ or ‘third party’ feedback – a major issue for some managers. I feel a new blog post coming!!
    Best wishes

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