When it comes to career development, the ability to properly manage constructive criticism can be a powerful key to success

While most people are eager to receive positive feedback for the things they do well at work, the opposite is true when it comes to receiving criticism. Of course, that should come as no real surprise, since few people ever enjoy hearing that they've fallen short of expectations. Still, did you know that a single instance of constructive criticism can sometimes do more to propel your professional growth than all the positive praise in the world? It's true!

In this post, we'll explore the many benefits of constructive criticism and explain how you can learn to both receive and deliver it in a way that benefits everyone involved. We'll also examine how this important type of feedback can be an important part of any successful job search and career.

What is constructive criticism?

While it can be difficult to hear that you've done something wrong or failed to meet some objective standard, that type of criticism is necessary to help you to adapt and grow as a person and as an employee. However, not all criticism is constructive, so it's important to know how to tell the difference between truly constructive feedback and negative, or destructive, criticism.

When delivered with the intent to help you to make positive changes and improvement, feedback can be considered constructive in nature. This type of criticism should always be considered a gift, since it provides real-time insight into areas of weakness that can be strengthened to make you a more valuable employee. Well-timed and well-delivered constructive criticism can fuel real career advancement if you learn how to receive it and how to leverage it to your benefit.

Destructive criticism is another matter entirely. This type of negative feedback is typically designed to diminish you, rather than to help you identify areas for improvement. Unfortunately, workplaces across the world are filled with supervisors and others who largely rely on negative criticism when dealing with problems or mistakes. In some instances, destructive criticism occurs because the person providing the feedback simply doesn't know how to offer constructive criticism. Sometimes, though, this is just another type of bullying tactic.

Differentiating between destructive and constructive criticism

It's vital to develop an understanding of these two types of criticism, so that you can better respond to constructive criticism when you encounter it. Here are some simple characteristics of each type of criticism that can help to differentiate the two:

Negative (destructive) criticism is usually characterized by:

  • Claims that are often exaggerated or even untrue

  • Feedback that focuses on you in a personal way

  • Statements that focus only on the problem, without directing you to solutions

  • Feedback delivered in an aggressive manner

Depending on the severity of the tone used in the delivery of this type of criticism, you may feel personally attacked or even intimidated. If the person providing the feedback seems wholly intent on making you look or feel bad, then there's a good chance that you may be witnessing workplace bullying. At best, you're likely dealing with someone who has no idea about how to deliver constructive criticism.

Positive (constructive) criticism looks and feels different and is characterized by:

  • At least some mention of the things you're doing well

  • A clear indication that the person delivering the feedback wants to help you

  • Clear and honest assessment of the areas in which you can improve

  • The presentation of potential solutions, that can help you to make positive changes

  • A more uplifting and welcoming delivery that can avoid any impact on morale

The role of constructive criticism in the workplace

It's also important to understand why the use of constructive criticism is so vital in the workplace. Just how important is this type of criticism when it comes to creating and maintaining a productive work environment, in which employee career development can be promoted and sustained over time? As it turns out, the effective use of constructive criticism is absolutely essential for business success. When used properly, constructive criticism:

  • Provides clear and understandable feedback to guide employees in their job roles

  • Enhances trust by demonstrating employer commitment to employee development

  • Helps to establish clear expectations for performance

  • Has a positive impact on employee behavior and engagement

In addition, well-delivered constructive criticism can foster improved teamwork and create better worker engagement. Just as important, this type of feedback can be an important tool for creating a positive environment with a culture of openness. Employee development benefits too, as workers feel more comfortable asking for assistance, seeking new information, and providing their own feedback to other members of the team.

Tips that can help you to receive and benefit from constructive criticism

Even if you already feel comfortable receiving constructive criticism and feel like you know how to benefit from this feedback, chances are that you can improve in this area. The following tips can help anyone to develop their ability to receive and use constructive criticism.

  1. Remain calm and avoid any initial reaction. This can help you to avoid becoming defensive and turning a potential learning experience into a workplace conflict.

  2. Clear your mind and focus on listening to what is being said. Pay attention to every word and try not to think about how you want to respond. Just take it all in.

  3. Do not make judgments about the speaker's motivations until you've had an opportunity to hear the entire presentation and absorb the information.

  4. Let the speaker know that you appreciate the feedback, even if you disagree with their assessment of your actions or performance. Any disagreements can be dealt with after you've had time to analyze the criticism.

  5. Repeat the criticism back to the speaker in your own words, to ensure that you fully understand the feedback. If you need more clarity, be sure to ask relevant questions. For example, you can ask for examples if you're unsure about the criticism.

  6. Be sure to agree with any part of the criticism that you instantly recognize as true, to create common ground. You should also ask the speaker for any actionable solutions that they might recommend.

  7. Finally, ask for time to consider the feedback in more detail. Schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss the issue again and use that extra time to consider how you can make improvements.

Tips to help you learn to deliver constructive criticism

As you might expect, it's also important to know how to deliver constructive criticism to others. Knowing how to provide truly beneficial feedback can make you a better team player and can help you to be a constructive part of your colleagues' career development. Fortunately, this skill can be developed if you're willing to adopt some of the following tips and strategies.

Critique behavior, not personalities or motivation

This is first on our list of tips for one very good reason: feedback can only be constructive if it avoids attacking the recipient's personality or motivations. That's because nobody wants to be personally attacked in the workplace and such attacks are always received as negative, or destructive, criticism. If you want to be helpful and provide actionable, productive feedback, make sure that you're only critiquing that person's behavior.

Be timely but pick the right moment

As a rule, feedback needs to be delivered in as close to real-time as possible. When you see an area of behavior that could benefit from constructive criticism, don't wait weeks to address the issue. Try to provide feedback as soon as you can, to ensure that the incident is fresh in everyone's memory. At the same time, however, you should make sure that you pick the right moment. For example, if the intended recipient is in an emotional state, you should wait until they are calmer so that they have the best possible chance of benefiting from your feedback.

Always try to criticize in private

There is an old saying in management circles that everyone would do well to adopt in their lives: praise in public, criticize in private. If you offer your feedback in a public setting, that may increase the chances that your intended recipient becomes defensive. To avoid that possibility, you should strive to deliver constructive criticism in private. This can help to put the other person at greater ease and make them more receptive to your insights.

Stick to objective concerns, avoid subjective opinions

By being objective rather than subjective, you can help to ensure that you remain focused on the behavior that needs to be corrected instead of the person. You can still personalize the feedback by using phrases like “I believe” and “I think” as you talk about the issues, as long as you try to avoid interjecting your feelings. Stick to the facts, outline where improvements can be made, and explain why the corrections are important.

Make your criticism easily digestible

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who dumped every criticism they could think of on you all at once? If so, then you probably already know how unproductive that approach can be, and how it always ends up feeling like a personal attack. One way to avoid that is to break your feedback down into smaller, single points of concern that can be more easily digested by your listener. Share your valid criticism on a point by point basis, so that your listener has a chance to take it all in and absorb the content.

Provide specific examples and be prepared to discuss

Make sure that you have specific examples of the conduct that needs to be corrected. Generalities can lead to defensiveness, especially if the listener does not immediately recognize the type of behavior you're bringing to their attention. You only need to mention one or two of those specifics to get your point across.

Be empathetic

Empathy can be your best friend when offering constructive criticism, as long as it's genuine. Your listener may not want to hear this type of feedback, but they will be more receptive if they know that you understand their situation and truly want to help them improve.

Mix praise with criticism

If possible, try to avoid any critique that doesn't also involve positive reinforcement. One popular school of thought involves sandwiching criticism between two positive statements. In this instance, you might begin your feedback by pointing to an area in which the employee is doing great work. You would then mention the area where you think some improvement can be made, and conclude with a more positive, upbeat statement - perhaps focusing on how great their work would be with a few slight improvements.

For example, let's say that one of your subordinates failed to address some key points in a presentation project for a client. The sandwich method could be used to bring those deficiencies to their attention, while still working to maintain employee morale:

“After reviewing your presentation, I have to say that I think you've done a wonderful job putting it all together. I did note, however, that your assessment of the client's market focus was missing a number of key details that would have strengthened your argument. I believe that your overall effort would be even more impressive if those essential details were revisited. I'm pretty sure that records can provide you with the statistical details you need to boost that section. Once you enhance that section, I'm confident that the client will be thrilled with the final results!”

In this example, you can clearly see the sandwiching strategy at work. The feedback begins by praising the work done on some client project, before turning to an area where potential improvement could be made. A possible solution is offered, followed by another statement of praise that is designed to inspire the employee to make the needed corrections.

Including the ability to embrace constructive criticism in your resume

Obviously, the ability to give and receive constructive criticism can benefit you in your career. But what about your job search efforts? Can it help you there, too? As it turns out, yes. Employers are always interested in hiring personnel who are comfortable with constructive criticism, since they know how important good feedback can be in team development and smooth business operations. That is why it's vital that your resume includes your ability to receive or deliver constructive criticism.

The following tips can help you to use your resume to highlight your skills in receiving and delivering constructive criticism:

  • Highlight your openness to constructive feedback by mentioning it in your skills section

  • Try to include at least one example of how you used feedback to improve your work performance in the work experience section of your resume

  • Be sure to include important feedback skills like teamwork, communication, and problem solving in your skills section and throughout your resume

  • Emphasize your commitment to career development and becoming a more valuable employee throughout your resume as well - employees who are truly committed to adding value tend to be more amenable to constructive feedback

Answering the “how well do you take feedback?” interview question

Finally, you should also prepare yourself for any possible interview questions related to your ability to receive constructive criticism. Employers often ask questions like these to assess your openness to feedback and your ability to learn and grow as an employee. For example:

“Tell me about a time when a manager criticized your work and how you responded.”

Like most people, I've had managers provide feedback to help me improve and meet expectations. One instance really stands out in my memory, however. I'd just finished a project that required about six weeks of focused effort, two days ahead of the deadline. My manager pointed to a number of areas where she thought I had fallen short, which caught me off guard since I was quite proud of the effort. 

After listening to her feedback, I understood her perspective and realized that her suggestions would dramatically improve the product. She was also clear enough in her guidance that I was able to make the changes and still bring the project in on time. During the client presentation, I made sure to credit her collaboration for the project's overall success.

Leverage constructive criticism to further your career

As you can see, constructive criticism can be one of the most powerful tools available in the business world. When used properly, it can benefit companies, managers, employees, and their clients, by ensuring that everyone involved has a clear and effective way to manage expectations and maintain standards of excellence. By using the tips and suggestions provided in this post, you should be able to improve your own ability to both deliver and receive constructive criticism, while also developing a better understanding of how to convey those skills to potential employers.

Want to ensure that your resume effectively highlights your ability to handle constructive criticism? Take a few moments and get your free resume review from our team of resume experts today!

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