Performance Management: Giving Constructive Criticism – What’s the Problem?


constructive criticism

In her book ‘Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems So That Everyone Can Get Back To Work’ Susan H Shearouse says:

“On survey after survey the biggest complaint workers have is the perceived unwillingness of managers to take action against poor performers’

What’s going on here?

Constructive Criticism – In Confidence

Well firstly, I guess it’s likely that some of these worker’s perceptions are incorrect. All effective managers deal with poor performance ‘in confidence’. They deal with the problem in a one to one conversation and the only other people who might know about that conversation are the senior manager and, maybe, HR. Not surprisingly very few employees like to talk about a conversation they’ve just had with their manager where they have received constructive criticism on their performance

So, it’s likely that in some cases the poor performance is being dealt with – behind closed doors


In my 15 years experience of training and coaching managers I’ve met many, many managers who certainly were unwilling to take action against poor performance – to give constructive criticism to the employee about their performance (and many years ago I too was that unwilling manager)

Constructive Criticism – The ‘Problem’

So what’s the problem with giving constructive criticism in order to deal with poor performance? Here are the three main reasons I see managers having a problem giving constructive criticism – and some ideas on how to deal with those problems

  1. Not sure if there actually is a performance problem

Many of the managers I have coached have asked me this question:

Is there actually a problem with the employee’s performance that I need to deal with or is it just a difference in style?

The issue here is that the manager can’t confidently establish if there actually is a performance problem. They know there is a ‘problem’ but they don’t know if it is a performance problem

The easiest way to answer the question is by answering another question:

What are the business consequences?

If there is a negative consequence to the business then there is a performance problem

(Read more about how to use this question in Improving Employee Performance: Is it them, or is it me?)

  1. Don’t know how to describe the performance problem

Most business owners and managers, in my experience, don’t find it too difficult to give constructive criticism on the quantifiable element of their employee’s performance.  They don’t find it too tough 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?’

What many managers find much more challenging is giving criticism on the unquantifiable elements of the employee’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 raising these types of issue.  The answer is to focus on the employee’s behaviours. The skill is in being able to answer the question:

What does it look like?

So, what does your employee’s ‘poor attitude’ look like in practice? What are they doing (or not doing) that’s causing a problem?

When we focus on behaviours we are able to give criticism that is easy for the employee to understand and accept (and much easier for us, as managers, to deliver)

  1. Don’t know how to gain agreement to improving poor performance

When we are giving positive criticism, we are seeking to motivate the employee to make a change – a change that leads to improved performance. Here’s a useful model for explaining the need and gaining agreement to making that change:


Action relates to the behaviours we have identified at 2. above. Results is about defining and explaining the results of those actions and consequences are the consequences to the business (as we explored in 1. above)

Most employees don’t want to be the cause of negative consequences. They don’t want to cause problems for the business, the team, for you or (of course) for themselves. Helping the employee to see the results and consequences of their actions gains agreement to improvement

(Read more on how to use Action & Results & Consequences at ‘How to Give Constructive Criticism Using A>R>C’)

Constructive Criticism Summary

There are many reasons why it’s critically important that we, as managers, learn how to give constructive criticism so that we can effectively take action to deal with poor performance. As Susan Shearhouse’s comment would suggest one of the key reasons is that failure to deal with poor performance seriously annoys our employees who are performing effectively

And annoyed employees are (usually) demotivated employees. And demotivated employees rarely perform to the best of their ability. Why would they? After all, if we don’t deal with underperformance they too could under perform to their hearts content – and nothing will happen

Want to read more about how to give constructive criticism?

constructive criticismWhy 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


4 Responses to Performance Management: Giving Constructive Criticism – What’s the Problem?

  1. […] my blog Giving Constructive Criticism – What’s the Problem? I talked about three of the reasons managers struggle to give their employees constructive […]

  2. PM Hut says:

    Hi Joan,

    We have published an excellent post on performance management in project management a while ago. Hope you’ll have the chance to read it.

  3. PM Hut says:

    Hi Joan,

    We have published an excellent post on performance management in project management a while ago. Hope you’ll have the chance to read it.

  4. joanhenshaw says:

    Hi PM Hut
    Thanks for the heads up on the post. I think it makes some good points about the collaborative approach to people management.
    Best wishes

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