Say your new employee has a rough first month. Productivity wasn’t up to expectations, mistakes were made, communication with other team members didn’t take place when necessary. So far, the potential you saw when you hired them hasn’t panned out.

And that’s OK. Even the best performers can get off to slow starts.

But that doesn’t mean you can afford to sit, wait, and hope that their performance improves. Habits, once formed, are tough to change. And the impact of a poor performer on your team can not only be considerable, but lasting.

Nope. It’s time for a little tough love.

No matter if they’re on day one or a tenured top performer, constructive criticism is an essential part of an employee’s growth—when they opt to listen to it. Here are three rules for providing constructive feedback that will actually reach your team and translate into results.

1. Give constructive criticism promptly, directly, and frequently.

No one says they get enough feedback.

That’s obviously true where recognition and praise are concerned. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m getting tired of being appreciated for all my hard work”?

But it’s also true for constructive criticism, because critical or negative feedback is hard to give. Even though it’s intended to improve performance, correcting an employee’s behavior can feel confrontational.

That is, unless you deliver feedback—both positive and negative—in the right way, which is promptly, directly, and frequently.

Here’s an example: An employee decides not to follow a process or guideline. Since two of the toughest feedback subjects—the employee’s attitude and personality—won’t come into play, that’s the perfect time to jump in.

Ask what happened. Then ask why. And unless there’s an extremely good reason for not following an agreed-upon process, make the correction.

Explain why the process is in place. Explain that until everyone agrees that a different process is better, following that process is the expectation.

After all, best practices are best for a reason.

And then say, “But here’s the thing: If you do find a better way, talk to me first. I’m always interested in better ideas. We just have to make sure they don’t affect the company as a whole.”

2. Be emotionally intelligent when an employee makes a mistake.

When an employee makes a mistake or has a near-miss, it’s tempting to turn their error into a teachable moment. Don’t.

Why? Because good employees already feel bad when they make a mistake. They’re harder on themselves than you can ever be. 

I learned that lesson the hard way. An employee came to my office to let me know he had used the wrong components and made a $10,000 mistake. I was a new (and therefore insecure) supervisor and let my frustration show.

“Didn’t you read the job ticket?” I asked. “Didn’t you double-check once the job started running? Didn’t you notice the colors didn’t match?”

After he left my office, I realized he was a lot more focused on how I had treated him than he was on the mistake he made. 

The lesson he learned was that I was a jerk.

Lessons learned on your own are lessons remembered forever. When an employee makes a mistake, don’t scold. Don’t berate. Ask what happened. Determine the root cause—together. Figure out what to do to correct the error—together.

Treat your employees with respect, even at their worst moments. Then they will listen. Then they will remember.

Then they will want to do better next time.

3. Use the “magical” feedback sentence.

It’s easy to assume that great feedback is based on content: what to do, what not to do, what to do differently, etc.

But just as important is the overarching message constructive criticism can send. Researchers gave a writing assignment to students and then had the students’ teachers provide different forms of feedback.

What they discovered was that one form of feedback was so effective in improving both performance and effort that it was almost “magical.” Students not only wrote better essays the next time, significantly more chose to revise their original papers than those who did not.

Here’s the “magical” statement: 

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.

While that statement sounds awkward—it’s hard to imagine repeating it word for word before giving an employee feedback—it’s incredibly effective for two main reasons.

One, it sets a high bar. You’re striving for excellence, not mediocrity. But you also show that you know it’s not easy to achieve excellence. It takes work, effort, dedication—and feedback.

Two, the statement conveys that you feel certain the employee can reach that high bar. You believe in them. You have confidence in their abilities. Together, you will succeed. 

In short, feedback is not just who, what, when, or where. Feedback is an integral part of a meaningful relationship. Feedback shows that you care.

And that you will always be honest. Ask professional athletes what they want most from their coach and almost all will say, “To be honest with me.” They want to know where they stand. They want to know what they need to do to improve. Unlike Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” they can handle the truth.

So can your employees—as long as you deliver those truths with honesty, respect, and emotional intelligence. Not only is that the best way to give constructive criticism, it’s the best way to build a culture of excellence—and the culture of a company that you, and more importantly your employees, will love.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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