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How Constructive Criticism in the Workplace Should Actually Work

Woman Receiving Constructive Feedback at an Annual Review

Here is what you find when you google “constructive criticism”:

Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one.

And the go-to resource suggested in providing constructive criticism or “feedback” is...yep, the feedback sandwich.

Feedback Sandwich
The infamous Feedback Sandwich

I can’t stand it, and the fact that this image comes from an article titled “The Feedback Sandwich Is Stale AF” should tell you I’m far from alone.

We all know that “feedback” has several definitions and this one is, in my opinion, more accurate even if it was not intended for this purpose.

Feedback: a rumbling, whining, or whistling sound resulting from an amplified or broadcast signal (such as music or speech) that has been returned as input and retransmitted.

Here’s a different idea.

Have some respect for the intellect of the person to whom you are providing constructive criticism. They know this game and they probably don’t like it either. Spare them the crappy sandwich from your feedback 101 script and just have a conversation. A REAL conversation, where you treat them like a smart, capable adult who wants to do their job well. Skip the BS and just be real.

If this (being real) does not come naturally for you, then find someone to practice your delivery with so they can help give YOU feedback on your feedback.

Don’t misunderstand me—giving feedback is not easy. It requires some level of confrontation and no one really enjoys that. Most of us avoid it at all costs, which gets us nowhere. But absent engaging with each other regularly to provide guidance, you miss the boat on accountability. As one of my “drama” coaching favorites, Cy Wakeman, always says, “Engagement without accountability leads to entitlement.” And we don’t want that either. So if you truly have helpful, constructive criticism to offer, be strong. Practice your delivery and then have the conversation.

P.S. Don’t save it all up for a feedback buffet. Address issues in real time, while they are fresh and relevant.

Why most constructive criticism and feedback is really bad.

Most of the time, if you are really struggling with giving feedback, it comes from a place of insecurity because the truth is, your feedback kind of sucks. Doing a root cause analysis may lead you to realize that your feedback is simply a fancy word for your opinion, and as you can see from reading the definition at the beginning of this blog, that is pretty much what constructive criticism is. Your opinion. Which is why we are all doing it wrong and the system is so broken.

As part of that, it is possible that your feedback could be coming from a place of emotion rather than a place of logic. Your single data point of experience does not actually make the feedback true, so be sure that you are presenting facts, clear data points, and logical reasoning when you provide feedback—not just your feelings.

But don’t take my word for it—I only have 30 years of experience with this stuff. My personal favorite resource on the topic of feedback is Marcus Buckingham. If you have not been introduced to Marcus, here is a quick peek into his take on why feedback fails.

We humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we “really” are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
The Feedback Fallacy, HBR, April 2019 edition

Better feedback: A short case study

Here is a recent example of how we adjusted the feedback process at Element Three to more closely align with our core value of transparency.

At Element Three we have a quarterly peer feedback process that we engage through our HRIS, BambooHR. Except we do it with a twist. All of the language and training in the system highlights the fact that this feedback is anonymous. Not in my house. Originally we did follow the rules and our peer feedback process went like this:

  1. Ask for feedback that the recipient of said feedback will never know came from you.
  2. From time to time, this seemed like a safe place to voice one’s opinion or emotional reaction to something this person may have done one time in the past. In extreme situations, it was the perfect platform for passive-aggressive messaging.
  3. Feedback is shared with the employee by their manager without any real context to support the feedback.
  4. The employee is frustrated and confused because they cannot ask clarifying questions about the feedback because they don’t know where it came from.
  5. The employee spends countless hours after that experience obsessing over who gave them the feedback, making guesses and holding grudges that are likely misplaced.
  6. Our core value of transparency erodes.

How we fixed it

We decided to amend the process and make this feedback no longer anonymous. We educated the company about why we were making this change and how we planned to administer and manage it.

What happened?

  • Feedback was much more thoughtful, specific, and constructive rather than destructive (no, it did not discourage people from providing deep insights).
  • People began sitting down with each other proactively to have conversations about the feedback they were giving to add context and to engage as humans.
  • Managers saved tons of time not having to run around asking for clarity and having multiple conversations to smooth over bad feedback.
  • A culture of trust was nurtured and our core value of transparency became a positive topic of conversation.

Be honest. Be respectful.

At the end of the day we all just crave respect and honesty, and even in times when it is hard to hear, if properly communicated, real constructive criticism makes us better. Quit being a bully. That approach not only does not work, it actively makes situations worse. Ditch the feedback sandwich for some good old fashioned empathy and watch the trust factor in your organization markedly improve.

 

Karen Seketa Element Three

Karen Seketa has been matching people to positions for years, and she's the one who finds all the superstars that populate the Element Three family. She's been here almost since the beginning, and if you ask her, she'll tell you it was the best decision she ever made.