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Constructive feedback is critical to success, yet it can also make people feel vulnerable, according to professionals.YURI ARCURS PRODUCTIONS/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Most people enjoy giving and receiving praise at work: Constructive criticism, not so much.

A few years ago, a survey of millennial employees found nearly one in four had called in sick to avoid an annual performance review. The survey, conducted for the U.S. human resources company TriNet, also found that 15 per cent of respondents cried after a review and more than a quarter walked out thinking they would start looking for another job.

“If I could, I would burn down that process,” says Christine Laperriere, an executive coach and founder of Toronto-based Leader in Motion and executive director of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre.

Yet, the same survey found almost nine out of 10 people would feel more confident in their work if they had more frequent performance conversations with their managers.

Constructive feedback is critical to success, yet it can also make people feel vulnerable, says Ms. Laperriere, who also hosts the Best Boss Ever podcast. It doesn’t have to, though.

Ms. Laperriere says a few guidelines can help ensure criticism is, indeed, constructive.

First, she says positive and negative feedback are important to improve performance and ensure employees feel valued.

Second, never surprise people with criticisms. Give regular feedback, schedule it – just not at the end of an exhausting day – and ensure people understand what kind of conversation they’re coming into.

“If it feels like it came out of the blue… they’re so much more likely to take offence to it,” she says.

Ask the person how they thought something went to understand their perception of the situation, she says, and always give feedback with the purest intention of helping that person progress.

And have those conversations when you are in a good state of mind.

“Do not give feedback when you’re personally triggered, irritated, tired, or when you’re rushing, when you’re too busy,” she says. “If you try to rush through a conversation without being fully present, you can make a lot of mistakes that leave a damaging impact on another person.”

Give feedback on a regular basis and come back to the conversation later prepared to answer questions and work with employees on a solution, she adds.

“Some people will get upset when a boss delivers hard feedback, and the person cries, or they get very angry, or they get very defensive. Well, that could just be their short-term response to feeling vulnerable or embarrassed,” she says. “Once their brain starts to process… now they’re trying to figure out where they can apply that feedback.”

Our brains respond to praise and criticism in much the same way they respond to other types of positive and negative feedback, says Anna Weinberg, Canada Research Chair in Clinical Neuroscience and an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University.

Humans are uniquely attuned to reading feedback from other people, Dr. Weinberg explains.

“When you receive positive feedback… that tends to engage similar regions of the brain as you might see if you win money, or if you get like a tasty candy treat or something like that,” she says.

When the feedback is negative, there is sometimes just an absence of this reward response, she says.

“And then there is some evidence that criticism or rejection similarly can activate regions of the brain associated with threat processing,” she says.

The good news is that people can reframe and change their emotional reactions to any kind of environmental feedback, Dr. Weinberg says.

In the psychology program at McGill, potential students are assessed for their ability to receive and learn from constructive criticism.

“Nobody enters already perfect and nobody leaves perfect, either,” Dr. Weinberg says. “So you try to really normalize it.”

Reactions to negative feedback are unique to the individual.

“There are some elements that are trait-like (characteristic) but also, through practice, anyone can improve taking criticism,” she notes.

It’s a manager’s job to deliver constructive criticism, says John Horn, a board member of CERIC, a charitable organization for research in career counselling and career development in Canada, and the director of people performance and development at BC Pension Corporation.

Managers should also ask for feedback on themselves, he says.

“When you signal that you are, as the most powerful person in the room, open to criticism, open to being able to do something better, then you’re going to create the conditions for others being open to that as well,” Mr. Horn says. “Just ask a simple question like, ‘How did that go? What do you think?”

Like Ms. Laperriere, he says approaching criticism as a means to help someone grow in their career is key, as well as being very clear.

“Clarity is kindness,” he says. “The feedback needs to be super direct and clear about what happened. It could be behaviour that had a negative impact on someone; it could be something as simple as being late consistently. Or it could be that the work that was delivered was not high enough quality. Be specific about what makes it an unacceptable piece of work and the impact.”

Finally, ensure the message landed and discuss the next steps, he says.

To do it well, prepare a few notes with that clear message, a few examples and the desired takeaway, he adds.

“A few minutes preparing before you have the conversation is really important so you can stay on point,” he says.

Everyone needs constructive feedback to progress and Mr. Horn himself invites feedback from team members. Being able to take criticism and grow is one of the most important skills to have in the workplace, he says.

“The world is changing so fast. There’s never been this pace of change before. So being able to learn is the most critical skill that anyone can have right now,” he says. “It’s super helpful for your career, but also just makes us all better humans, where we can really listen openly and authentically to feedback and try to commit to growing from it.”

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