How to Give Criticism at Work: The Wishful Thinking Approach

constructive criticism

Do you ever find yourself enjoying some ‘wishful thinking?’ You know, wishing for a result or an outcome when, in reality, that result or outcome is unlikely? I’m sure we all do (at least I do; winning the lottery / the Pulitzer Prize, becoming the world’s oldest supermodel –the usual)


Now, have you ever tried the wishful thinking approach when you think about how to give criticism at work? No? Are you sure? Here’s how it goes.


You have a conversation with your employee where you hint that there’s a problem with their performance (and, usually, hint again). Your wishful thinking is that the employee will quickly volunteer the information that there is a problem with their performance – so that you don’t actually have to give any constructive criticism


It sounds something like this:

How to Give Criticism at Work: The Wishful Thinking Approach

Manager (you)

How are things going with the ABC project?

Wishful thinking response (what you hope to hear)

Actually I’m glad you brought that up. I’m struggling with managing the project to the timetable and I’ve missed the first deadline

Employee’s actual response

Fine thanks

Manager tries again…


Err, how are you finding managing the timetable?

Wishful thinking response   

Well now you mention it I am having a problem…

Employee’s actual response

Fine thanks, we’re getting there

Manager tries yet again…


Don’t you think the fact that you’ve missed the first deadline indicates that there’s a problem?

Wishful thinking response   

Well as you put it like that yes I do

Employee’s actual response

No, that always happens in a project like this –it’s no biggy

Manager sobs

The Manager’s Dilemma

Do you see how taking this wishful thinking approach to giving criticism at work can make performance improvement much more difficult than it needs to be? Why? Because now that we’ve led the employee along the wishful thinking route (without success) we’re left with having to assume that either

a) Our employee is stupid (as they don’t see there’s a problem) or

b) Our employee is lying (as they do see the problem but won’t admit it)


So now, presuming here that there actually is a problem (and if you’re not sure how to test if there is see my blog Performance Management: Is it them or is it me?), we’ve got a real dilemma. We still have to get the employee to see that there’s a problem with their performance but how are we going to do that without letting the employee know that we think that they are either a simpleton or a liar?


Even if we were to now use the fairly bland response ‘Well I need to tell you that there is a problem with you missing the deadline because…’ the subtext (albeit unspoken) has to be ‘and you must be pretty stupid not to see the problem, unless you’re lying’


Not great is it? The good news is, there’s an easier way


How to Give Criticism at Work: The Easy Way

It’s much easier, and more effective, to simply explain clearly to the employee the problem as you see it. In my blog How to Give Constructive Criticism Using A>R>C I explain a neat model based on Action>Results>Consequences = Agreement. Here’s how that might sound


I want to talk to you about the ABC project and specifically about the missed deadline


You’ll know that the deadline was 31st January for the first phase. That deadline was missed by 7 days


The result of the missed deadline is that the second phase of the project is now behind schedule


The consequence, as I see it, is that there’s a real risk of the project deadline not being met which will mean a delay in the launch date of the new product


Can you agree that there’s a problem with your management of the project schedule?


Of course you would then go on to explore the problem from the employee’s perspective.

The important point is that you begin the constructive criticism conversation by clearly explaining what you see as the performance problem

How to Give Criticism at Work Summary

In most conversations with your employee it’s a great idea to open the discussion with questions (you can read more on this in my blog Are you asking your employees enough questions?). The exception is when giving constructive criticism. It’s much simpler – and fairer to your employee – to explain clearly, honestly and objectively the performance problem, as you see it, and then invite the employee to add their insights. No wishful thinking, no hinting, and no making life so hard for yourself

Do you want to read more about how to give criticism at work?

how to give criticism at workWhy not take a look at my e-book ‘Motivating Your Staff to Improve Their Performance with Positive Criticism’ – a step-by-step guide for giving criticism in a way that your staff member finds easy to understand and easy to accept and that motivates them to make a change that improves their performance. More details HERE


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