6 Golden Feedback Rules

Constructive criticism: the hardest and most significant of all. But how to give useful feedback? Find out how to be a fair and effective critic by considering these 6 golden rules.

You know the feeling. Your colleague has given this crazy presentation, has polished the charts for weeks and done their best to choose an illustrative example. However – something just wasn’t right. The point didn’t come across. The angle was off. Or he or she was just talking too fast.

Whichever way you put it, criticism is what it is. It triggers feelings of being disliked or fear of conflict – both tend to derail fruitful discussion. So what can you do to make it go down well?

1) You’re helping, not patronising

It really helps to keep in mind what you are giving feedback for. You’re not doing it to show everyone in the room how much better you could have done it – but you want to help the speaker (co-worker, employee, …) improve their own skill. Giving feedback is not making it about you, but giving someone useful advice.

2) Get it over with

Criticism works best when given at the right time: immediately or shortly after. If you see room for improvement, address it right after listening to a speech or going through a report. If you’re in an auditorium full of people – see below.

3) Four eyes only

You were dissatisfied with the performance of an employee? Your expectations of a partner weren’t met? It is best to share this in private – again, if possible right after the event. Public criticism will humiliate the person you are addressing and most likely they’ll be defensive rather than motivated to improve.

4) It’s not about the person

A lot of people feel criticised as a person when their work is being picked apart. Try instead to really focus on the issue and avoid phrases with “you”. If the speech was boring, why not say “I thought it was too slow-paced and I couldn’t figure out what it was about”, rather than, “I’m afraid you did not get your point across”? Of course, there is such a thing as too-soft wording. But especially for sensitive colleagues, the impersonal approach is easier to digest.

5) Some things never change

By focusing on things the other person can change, you are doing both of you a favour. If your counterpart is socially awkward or their glasses were reflecting the ceiling lamps – what good will it do to mention it? Some external or internal conditions are hard or impossible to change. Address the points that are changeable and make a sensible suggestion.

6) Positive, please

While not everyone agrees on the “sandwich approach” – positive, negative, positive – there is something to complementing criticism with positive feedback. Praise stimulates the reward centre in the brain and leaves us more likely to change our ways. A lot of criticism actually can be wrapped in a positive fact: “You have excellent ideas. I’d like you to voice them more often” is an excellent wrap-up of constructive criticism concerning someone’s reserve in meetings.

For feedback to be effective, it has to be good – but of course good does not equal positive. Giving useful criticism is a true masterclass in feedback culture. It is also the most important kind, because as much as we all love praise and a pat on the shoulder, we learn the most from our critics.