By Jim Wong, CPA | May 20, 2015

Whether you’re an accounting, finance or IT professional – in a manager/leadership position or not – it’s safe to say that you’ve either delivered or received some form of constructive criticism. When there’s a strong relationship between managers/leaders and their teams, there tend to be fewer surprises when it comes time for performance reviews. However, in many cases, professionals aren’t prepared for the less-than-stellar feedback they hear – when it’s the first they’re hearing it.

We all know it’s a good practice to deliver constructive criticism throughout the year – not just during performance reviews. And I believe that a large majority of manager/leaders do indeed share feedback on an ongoing basis. However, it’s possible no matter how frequently you offer feedback that your team members just aren’t hearing you’re really saying, especially if you’re watering down the message.

That’s the focus of a recent Forbes article written by Mark Murphy, a leadership keynote speaker and founder of Leadership IQ. Murphy says it’s crucial to deliver constructive criticism that’s not so soft that your message gets lost. You might think you’re doing a good job of providing constructive feedback that employees can act upon, but it’s pretty easy, and common, to share criticism that your employee actually misses.

The article offers some interesting pointers, which I’ve summarized into a few tips below, including some of my own thoughts.

1. Deliver just the facts.
When you’re having a discussion about performance, it should be fact-based. If there is a task or behavior someone on your team exhibited that isn’t in line with your expectations, tell them without trying to “soften the blow” with emotional language. That is, don’t allow you or your team members’ emotions to factor into how you deliver the constructive criticism. Unfortunately, I find that many managers/leaders assume that being blunt may be too harsh if they’re communicating negative feedback.

In fact, of 1,800 supervisors surveyed, Murphy says only 31 percent regularly restrict constructive feedback to factual information about performance only. They usually pipe in some emotional language. Not only that, a whopping 51 percent take an approach that likely does more harm than good.

2. Don’t use the “sandwich approach.”
The “compliment sandwich,” as Murphy describes it, is offering a compliment, followed by a bit of criticism, followed by another compliment. I know I’ve been guilty of delivering this type of feedback myself, and it turns out I’m not alone. Of those surveyed, more than half said they use this approach, saying they think it “makes constructive criticism easier to hear.”

The problem? The sandwich approach may seem like the nice or diplomatic way to go, but the problem lies in how people hear and retain information. Accounting, finance and IT professionals – and all other professionals for that matter – are more likely to remember the positive feedback you gave. They’re also more likely to remember the first and last pieces of information you shared, therefore, forgetting everything in between. So don’t be surprised if, after delivering constructive criticism in this manner, you haven’t seen any improvement from your team – they didn’t hear you!

3. Explain your purpose.
Most managers aren’t out to undercut their team members. They actually want to see them succeed professionally, as well as help the business overall. So, it stands to reason that good managers/leaders deliver constructive criticism out of respect and genuine concern for their team members’ careers.

That being said, you’ll gain more respect by explaining why you’re sharing feedback – whether it’s a professional development opportunity or the fact that it could hurt their career with the company if they don’t improve, etc.

Murphy suggests beginning your discussion with a softening statement, such as, “I’d like to share some constructive feedback with you.” Followed by a value statement that indicates a desired outcome, such as, “In order to get promoted to Sr. Finance Manager, it’s important I share this with you so you can improve in this area.”

4. Don’t delay! Give timely feedback.
As a final point, remember that feedback should happen often; plan to have a discussion following any big meeting or presentation, as well as after observing poor performance or negative behaviors. Don’t wait until annual performance reviews to provide useful criticism to your team members. It’s best for success to tell them sooner.

Have other thoughts or opinions on delivering constructive criticism to your team? Comment below and let us know!

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