Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism in Your Accounting Firm

Gusto Editors

Do you know when to deliver constructive criticism and how to deliver it effectively? 

Constructive criticism plays a critical role in accounting firms. Whether you need to address a specific behavior or a poor work performance, you need to convey constructive feedback professionally so members of your firm can improve. 

Fortunately, Gusto, along with our partners at CPA Academy, presented an edifying webinar all about delivering and receiving constructive criticism. Our presentation, “Feedback: Give It, Get It, Use It” featured the expertise of Kristen Rampe, a former CPA and current consultant to CPA firms. You can watch Kristen’s entire presentation here

In this article, you’re going to learn all about when to give constructive feedback, how to prepare your constructive criticism, and the best way to discuss issues revolving around your colleagues’ work performances. 

When to give constructive feedback

Constructive feedback is an essential tool for improving colleagues’ work performances and behaviors within your firm. People often find it challenging to determine when to deliver feedback. You can separate potential issues in your firm into three separate categories to determine whether or not you should provide constructive feedback: big issues, problems, and annoyances

You should consider addressing big issues, such as unethical or inappropriate behavior towards clients or coworkers, quickly because they pose a significant problem. You should also make sure that both you and your feedback recipient are in a positive state of mind when delivering your criticism:

“If you’ve got a big issue, we want to tackle these soon. … However, … if you’re steaming mad, don’t go deliver feedback. … Be sure that you are in a good state. And you also want the person receiving it to be in the right state to be receptive to it.”

Kristen Rampe 

If you’re experiencing intense emotions, you’ll likely be unable to deliver feedback professionally. Both you and your co-worker need to be in the right state of mind so that they follow your feedback and improve their behavior or work performance. 

You should also address problems quickly. A problem with one of the members of your firm means there’s a recurring issue that you need to address to elicit improvements: 

“These are the ones that you want to start bringing up when you’ve seen that something is more than a one-off and there’s [an] opportunity for improvement. If there isn’t [an opportunity for improvement], you may want to just hold off and say, ‘It’s fine; I’m going to let it go.'”

Kristen Rampe 

You should address a problem shortly after it occurs. For example, if someone dresses unprofessionally in your office, you should bring it up with them within a day rather than allow several days to pass without addressing the problem. Prompt attention can minimize opportunities for the behavior to occur again, especially when the employee’s offending behavior was unintentional. 

Two males siting beside reach other exchanging feedback

The final category of addressing feedback is annoyances. This category can be challenging to navigate because you shouldn’t necessarily address an annoyance, and it can be difficult to draw the line between a problem and an annoyance:

“There’s a big gray area there. Things that are annoyances are the type of feedback that you might never even want to address with someone. You really need to consider if it’s worth the cost-benefit. When you do want to bring it up is when you can articulate a link to an impact, like an objective … [or] why this particular behavior … doesn’t work for the team.”

Kristen Rampe 

Address annoyances when they negatively impact your office’s objectives or your team, but you need to draw a connection between a behavior and a tangible impact. If someone irritates you, but their behavior doesn’t negatively impact your firm’s objectives or team, consider letting it go.

Preparing to give someone negative feedback

If someone’s behavior or work performance negatively impacts your firm’s objectives or team, you need to address it, but to do that, you need to prepare yourself to give negative feedback. You should self-reflect and take the time to formulate your feedback: 

“Do some self-reflection and think about … what’s going on for you? What are the feelings you’re having about the situation, and what are the needs that you have? … Take the time to think through some of these thoughts, the delivery of your feedback, and the effectiveness of your feedback will be a lot higher. So these things take time, … but time is what’s going to improve your effectiveness.”

Kristen Rampe 

In addition to self-reflecting and formulating your criticism, you should also consider the feedback recipient’s perspective: 

“What do you want to learn about their point of view on this particular topic? I mean, they must have had a reason for doing what they did or why they did [it], … and you may know some of that, but there might be more that you don’t know. So thinking about what is it that might be important for you to know about the situation is helpful in preparing.”

Kristen Rampe 

You need to reflect and try to understand the other person’s perspective. Taking a moment to put yourself in the other person’s shoes can help you deliver more effective feedback while also being sensitive to your colleague’s feelings. 

You also should identify how your colleague’s behavior or work performance has impacted your firm. You can identify values that you share with your colleague so that you can point out how their behavior or performance contradicts your shared values:

“We can start to get them on board by kicking off with like, ‘Hey, one of our goals … is integrity. And when I see you making some changes to the report after it’s been issued, I feel like that’s not in line with that organizational goal.’ So you want to connect it back to something that matters for them.”

Kristen Rampe 

Connect your feedback to a goal or value that they have so that they’re more receptive to your critiques and willing to change their behavior.

In addition to having the goal to change their behavior, you should also keep your future professional relationship in mind when delivering constructive feedback: 

“What is your relationship goal? … [Ask yourself] how … you want them to feel, and that can guide some of the words you use and how you present things.”

Kristen Rampe 

You should aim to guide the conversation so that you don’t make your colleague feel poorly. Work toward a positive conclusion with them that changes their behavior and strengthens your professional relationship. 

Delivering constructive criticism

After you consciously prepare your constructive criticism, you need to communicate with your colleague tactfully. There are three critical steps you should take when delivering constructive criticism:  

1 Ask them to engage in a dialogue. Rather than demanding to discuss the issue, you can invite your colleague to the conversation:

“We’re not really expecting them to deny the request. But by making a request, you’re setting it up to be a two-way street. … ‘We need to talk about this. I’m going to tell you all the things you’re doing wrong,’ just doesn’t feel as inviting. So you want to ask them, ‘Can we talk about’ whatever the topic is.”

Kristen Rampe

Don’t merely rebuke the person for doing something wrong—engage in a constructive dialogue that begins with you inviting them to the conversation.

2. Listen to them. Listening to your colleague explain their side to the issue can fundamentally change your perspective on the problem. You can ask them questions about the issue so you can hear their perspective: 

“Ask them, “Hey, I noticed XYZ, can you tell me…” And then some kind of relevant question like, … ‘What was going on from your perspective?’ … because when they start sharing with you, you can get a lot of information that you didn’t have before when you were just basing things on your assumptions.”

Kristen Rampe 

Hearing your colleague’s perspective and intentions can dramatically affect the conversation going forward. You may even discover that your colleague had a justifiable reason for the issue and that you don’t even need to continue giving them specific constructive feedback.

Two accountants engaging in a dialogue about a work issue.

3. Share your perspective. If you’re continuing the conversation after hearing your colleague’s perspective, you should share with them what you’ve noticed about the issue:

“Share the things that you’ve noticed, and you want to try to have them be as objective as possible. So really specific observations that don’t have judgments. … And the reason for that is [because] the more ambiguous the statement or the more open to interpretation, the harder it is for two people to agree that was indeed the thing that happened.”

Kristen Rampe

You need to be specific and objective when pointing out your observations because you don’t want to leave room for ambiguity. You point out an issue that occurred that is not open to interpretation so your colleague can improve. 

Don’t say open-ended statements, such as “You need to be more professional with clients.” Point to a specific event that transpired, like they delivered an off-color joke to a client, so that you can state that the specific incident is indicative of a pattern of inappropriate conduct. You need to come to an explicit understanding that the event or pattern of behavior occurred so that your colleague can change their behavior moving forward. 

Learn more about giving constructive criticism

Delivering constructive feedback is essential for improving your colleagues’ work performances and behaviors, but you need to evaluate whether your issue with a colleague is substantial enough to address. If your colleagues’ behavior is negatively impacting your firm, you should prepare your criticism carefully and deliver it in a way that encourages a dialogue rather than reprimanding them. 

If you’re ready to learn more about how you can strengthen your ability to receive and deliver effective feedback, read Part One and Part Three of this webinar article series. You can also watch the full webinar here

If you need assistance in growing your firm and serving your clients, consider partnering with Gusto. Gusto automatically files and sends local, state, and federal taxes for businesses under 100 employees, and we also offer health insurance and 401(k) integration. When you partner with Gusto, you’ll also gain access to HR experts and additional tools for expanding your firm and offering your clients new insights.

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