How to Give Criticism at Work: Managing the ‘Pain Problem’

constructive criticism

In my blog Giving Constructive Criticism – What’s the Problem? I talked about three of the reasons managers struggle to give their employees constructive criticism in order to improve employee performance. In this blog I’m going to talk about a fourth reason, what I call the ‘pain problem’

Here’s how some of the managers I’ve worked with describe it:

‘I know I need to give my employee some constructive criticism on an area of performance they need to improve. But I know that when I do they will be; upset / angry / disappointed / embarrassed and I don’t want to make them feel that way’

Constructive Criticism: The Pain Problem

The issue here is that managers don’t want to cause their employees pain. That ‘pain’ might be upset, anger, disappointment or embarrassment. So because we don’t want to cause pain (who would?) we avoid giving constructive criticism

But here’s the thing

NOT giving criticism causes pain. It causes pain to:

  • The business: If our employee is underperforming that must be causing pain to the business


  • The team: Nobody, but nobody, wants to work with an underperforming team member – particularly if that underperformance isn’t being dealt with. Not dealing with underperformance is the easiest way to demotivate an entire team – and that brings pain


  • You as the manager: Do you enjoy not dealing with underperformance? Does it do great things for your confidence? Need I say more?


And most importantly it causes pain to:


  • The employee: Very few people enjoy being an underperformer. Even if they are not aware that they are underperforming, other people will be (including you).


Underperforming employees are rarely, if ever, well thought of. Other people don’t tend to relate well to an underperforming colleague (do you?). I could go on. The whole point of giving constructive criticism is to help the employee improve   their performance. If you don’t give the criticism you can’t help your employee improve their performance. Is that fair?


So, we know that there are consequences to not dealing with underperformance. But we still have the issue of how to deal with our reluctance to cause our employees pain. Here are two ways to address the issue


  1. Be skilful in giving constructive criticism

I’ve written a lot about how to skilfully deliver constructive criticism so that your employee finds that criticism easy to understand and easy to accept (and relatively pain free). Without repeating the whole lot, here are two key points:


  1. a) Focus on behaviours. Your employees are much less likely to have negative emotional reactions when they hear criticism focused on their behaviours rather than on their personality. There is much less pain in hearing criticism on what we do rather on who we are 


  1. b) Focus on Action>Results>Consequences. When we help our employee to see the results and consequences (to the business) of their actions we can help them see the need to change those actions. The more we focus on the business consequences the less ‘personalised’ the criticism feels – and the less painful. Read more on ARC at ‘How to Give Constructive Criticism Using A>R>C


  1. Take Ownership for Your Responsibilities – and Only Yours

No matter how skillful we are at giving constructive criticism, our employee may still feel some upset, anger, disappointment or embarrassment. Why? Because, for many of us, that is how we are hard wired to react to criticism. It’s often part of the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress and a natural response to hearing something we find stressful – criticism


My view is that we cannot and should not try and take ownership of our employee’s emotional response – that is for the employee to own


We should take responsibility for:


  • Giving constructive criticism in order to improve performance
  • Giving the criticism skilfully


And that’s all


When we try and take responsibility for other people’s emotions we treat them as children. Our job is not to parent your employees, but to manage them effectively. Our employee’s emotions are for them to own and it’s just not helpful to try and take responsibility for those emotions


Constructive Criticism – A Crucial Part of Management

constructive criticismGiving constructive criticism in order to improve employee performance is a challenge but also a crucial part of our management role. To learn more about how to deal with poor performance – and specifically how to deal with negative reactions to criticism – why 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





2 Responses to How to Give Criticism at Work: Managing the ‘Pain Problem’

  1. […] criticism – the type of ‘tough love’ that Kyle talks about. In my blog ‘Constructive Criticism: Managing the Pain Problem’ I talk about one of the key reasons for this reluctance – the fear of causing our employees […]

  2. […] just not helpful – especially to the employee – to do that    (Read more at Constructive Criticism – Managing the ‘Pain Problem’ ) […]

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