Don’t Deflate Employees — Motivate Them With Constructive Criticism

By Robert Half September 3, 2019 at 5:00pm

Constructive criticism — tactful, thoughtful feedback that balances negative and positive comments — is a vital tool for motivating your finance and accounting team members to keep raising the bar on their performance. Millennial and Gen Z employees, in particular, crave such feedback from managers on a regular basis to help them make meaningful progress toward their career goals.

Effectively delivering constructive criticism is easier said than done, however. Managers must walk the fine line of accentuating the positive while helping employees understand how to address shortcomings in their performance. The task isn’t made any easier by the fact that workers respond differently to feedback.

You’ll likely find most employees take such criticism in stride. Some may have hurt feelings. And some may even be angry to receive critiques of their work or on-the-job behavior.

Here are seven ways to make constructive criticism work for you and part of your organizational culture. Also included are suggestions for working with staff members who strongly dislike being critiqued:

1. Set up feedback meetings in advance

Catching employees off guard with criticism is sure to put them on the defensive. So, schedule feedback meetings with ample notice, letting workers know this will be a time to discuss their performance. That way, they have a chance to prepare and present any concerns of their own about their job progress.

2. Be mindful of your timing

Is your accounting staff racing to meet year-end deadlines? Is your accounting manager preparing for a difficult meeting? These are among the worst times to schedule a meeting where they will get comments on how they’re handling their job. Check your team’s workload and schedule before calling them into a meeting.

3. Get specific

Generalizations such as, “Your customer service skills are falling short,” will come across as vague to your employees and could invite excuses and protests. Prepare for the meeting by compiling a list of examples of their strengths and weaknesses in action. Then, follow up with suggestions for how employees can specifically improve and achieve better results.

4. Offer big-picture context

Too often, busy professionals get so wrapped up in their own tasks that they don’t fully understand their contributions to the organization as a whole. Let your employees know what impact their work has on the company.

5. Implement a call to action that includes autonomy

Wrap up each meeting with questions that invite employees to take charge of improving their performance. For example: “Let’s set up a plan to address these issues. What do you think your first step should be?” By putting employees behind the wheel and asking them to steer their careers in the direction they want, you’re more likely to see positive action and results.

6. Keep meetings short and focused

For some employees, you may have a whole laundry list of areas where you’d like to see improvement. But with each item you tick off your list, you’ll drive up their stress levels, increasing the possibility that they’ll become overwhelmed and brush off all your criticism. So, decide which one or two areas are most important and focus on those until they are resolved.

7. Make it a routine

Schedule a follow-up session to assess progress. What concrete steps and goals should the employee have completed by the time you meet? Also, emphasize that constructive criticism isn’t a one-off event, but an ongoing process. Over time, that will help to make it part of your organizational culture.

Handling adverse responses to constructive criticism

There are many reasons workers don’t respond well to constructive criticism. For example, they might be insecure or fearful of losing their jobs. Some workers might be accustomed to only receiving praise, while others may have been berated by a bad boss in a previous role. And others may be unable to leave their ego at the door, so they can see clearly how they might perform better.

Managers can’t possibly know everything going on inside employees’ heads, but they can take extra caution when delivering feedback. Here are some tips:

  • Stick to the facts. Attempts to sugarcoat criticism might come off as condescending or insincere. Kindly but firmly state an irrefutable fact, such as, “The figures on this account reconciliation are off.” Then, suggest solutions that the employee can apply to prevent this issue from happening again.
  • Be patient. Avoid accusations and make it clear that you’re invested in helping your team members improve their performance so they can achieve their career goals. Eventually, the walls should begin to come down, even for workers who tend to put their defenses way up.
  • Ask for feedback on you. Turn the tables by providing staff members a chance to offer you constructive criticism, from time to time. That will give you insight into not only how you are perceived as a leader, but also what your employees consider to be the ideal way to deliver critiques on performance.

Constructive criticism is an integral part of today’s workplace and, when offered appropriately, can help everyone in the organization to improve. Take care when delivering this feedback, though, since you want to engage and motivate your employees, not deflate them. Also, always offer praise to your workers when it is due. Your employees will be more open to hearing about their weaknesses when you are quick to highlight their strengths and achievements.

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