5 Tactful Ways of Providing Constructive Criticism During Sensitive Times

Communication, Leadership

Feedback and constructive criticism is not only essential for the success of the team and the organisation but should be consistently provided. During sensitive times like these – or when employees are knowingly experiencing their own personal hardships, managers and leaders can find it difficult to provide constructive feedback. 

Some people take constructive criticism personally. They may feel their value is being undermined; that they’re ‘not good enough’, or that their hard work is being under-appreciated. Unfortunately, times of crisis and uncertainty breeds heightened sensitivity in most individuals – even those that would otherwise take criticism well. 

Right now we are facing a global health crisis that’s ignited an economic crisis. Businesses are struggling and people’s jobs are at risk. Now more than ever, employees are feeling vulnerable. In fact, 61% of employees say they feel anxious, distracted or stressed due to Coronavirus. Right now, criticism is not seen as a tool for improvement, it now triggers concern: ‘does this put me at even greater risk of losing my job?’ / ‘is this leading to a lay-off?’

Below are 5 tactful tips for providing constructive criticism in times of crisis: 

1. Establish a sense of security 

This may not apply every other time feedback is given, but it’s certainly essential now. If there’s feedback that could be taken personally or negatively (for example, the person has underperformed, made an error or missed a deadline), first assure them that their job is safe, they’re an invaluable part of the team and integral to the success of the team/task, which is why the feedback is important. Establish security before the criticism is given because it creates trust, ease of communication, clears their mind of concern and paves the way for action and execution. 

2. Focus on the work, not the individual 

While sometimes the person themselves (i.e their performance or their approach to the task) can be the reason for the criticism, never make it personal. Words like ‘you’ should never be used; instead, focus on the work. Was the task not executed correctly? Suggest working on communication (from their side and yours). Were deadlines not met? Suggest a task management tool. Feedback should always be followed by positive solutions and suggestions, rather than highlighting shortcomings. 

3. Make it conversational 

Establishing a conversation makes it much easier to provide constructive criticism and the individual will be less defensive. It’s a case of discussing versus telling. Discussions generate solutions while telling causes a need to defend. If both parties discuss the concerns and solutions together there’s a much better chance of the individual taking more responsibility and accountability going forward – because they’ve come up with the solutions themselves. This should become a regular way of providing feedback. It strengthens communication, establishes employee engagement and creates a culture of continuous improvement.

4. For every criticism, provide a compliment

This is not necessary every time feedback is given, but again, during sensitive, vulnerable times it can make a difference to the way the individual responds, and the action they take. The goal is to get the individual to truly listen to your feedback and act on it, rather than jump to survival mode, act defensive and miss the point of the chat. In order to manage this effectively, make sure that you’re also highlighting their strengths and commendable results. Harsh criticism particularly goes down better if a compliment is provided. Remember employees want to feel seen and valued and a simple acknowledgement goes a long way.

5. Provide support

Always try and leave the chat on a positive note. Whether you thank the employee for all that they’ve done, or whether you let them know they have your support, can chat to you at any time, and that you’re genuinely interested and excited about their development, it’s simple things that can completely change their approach to the criticism. The way you end this kind of conversation, can either build or crush motivation; improve or worsen employee engagement, boost or lower productivity.

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