How to give constructive criticism in 9 easy steps

Let’s admit it, giving constructive criticism can be a tricky thing to implement. Many business owners find it’s a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”: if you do it wrong, you risk demotivating and alienating the staff member, which affects productivity in a negative way. Or if you don’t do it all, any below-par behaviour continues.

But, if you manage to do it right, giving constructive criticism helps team members (even excellent employees) lift their game and it can really motivate them.

So how do you give constructive criticism – but without shooting yourself in the foot?

Here are 9 easy steps on how to give constructive feedback:

Step 1: Consider the timing  

Some constructive feedback is urgent, but other times it’s not so time sensitive.

For example, if an employee is manhandling a machine in a way that’s causing excessive wear and tear – that’s urgent. As is an employee who’s yelling at a customer. Or stealing from you. And you need to address it right away.

But if the feedback is about something like admin practices or communication skills, then it’s something that may be appropriate to bring up at the next one-to-one meeting with your employee.

However, don’t categorise something as non-urgent simply because you don’t want to deal with it right now! For example, if an employee is regularly late to work or flouts the dress code, you need to strike while the iron’s hot – you need to speak to them right now.

Hint: if you’re not running weekly one-to-one meetings with your team, you really must start implementing them – it is in your favour! Employees expect guidance and feedback at one-to-one meetings, which immediately sets the right tone and creates the perfect forum for feedback.

Step 2: Consider the location  

Always always always give the feedback in private. There are no exceptions to this rule!

Step 3: State the purpose of your feedback in a constructive manner

So now you’ve got your employee in the office (or other private, appropriate location). The ideal way to get the ball rolling is to get straight to the point: do not use delaying tactics, such as enquiring about the employee’s dog/child/parent/grandparent/medical complaint.

Ideal opening statements include:

  • “I want to discuss…”
  • “I have a concern about…”
  • “I feel I need to let you know…”
  • “I have some thoughts about…”

This sets the right tone from the outset.

Step 4: Describe what you’ve observed – and be specific about it

When you speak to your employee, you should have a certain event or action in your mind. You need to communicate what happened, where, and who was involved.

Stick to what you personally observed and do not speak for others. (“Betty said that you…” is a no-no.)

Also, avoid talking in vague terms: do not discuss what the employee “always” or “usually” does.

Example: “Yesterday morning, when Fred came to see you about some quality control issues, I heard you raise your voice at him.”

Step 5: Describe the outcome and consequences

The next step is for you to explain the consequences of the event to the employee, so they can see how you and other people were affected. It’s vital that the employee understands the impact of their behaviour on the rest of the team, and the company as a whole.

Example: “Fred looked embarrassed, as did the other people in your office. We are a team in this business, and shouting at work mates is not acceptable behaviour.”

Step 6: Let the other person respond to what you’ve said

Even though you’re the boss, feedback needs to be a two-way street. So once you’ve explained the outcome and consequences, stop talking. Remain silent and look your employee in the eye, so they have a chance to respond.

Most people will respond to this, but if the employee hesitates simply ask them an open-ended question, such as:

  • “What do you think?”
  • “What are your thoughts?”
  • “What is your view of the situation?”

Step 7: Make positive suggestions

If possible, make some positive suggestions on what to do next – and include some practical examples.

This step is important because it demonstrates your leadership: you’ve moved on to thoughts of improving the situation, rather than dwelling on accusations and finger pointing. Remember, constructive feedback is all about staff development and providing coaching. (And even good performers can be coached to be better still!)

Example: “If Fred’s team can’t fix the quality control issue before the next shipment, that’s a major problem we all need to brainstorm together. So if it happens again, come to me right away – and I’ll be sure to let Fred know that, too.”

Step 8: Summarise the action points

Before the employee leaves your office, summarise the action points – but do not mention the employee’s negative behaviour again… remember, you’ve moved on from that.

Also, be sure to end the meeting on a positive note by expressing your confidence in the employee’s ability to improve the situation.

Example: “As I said, getting the quality control issues corrected before the next shipment is vital. And I’m really glad that you’re focused on the customer experience. If you spot hiccups like this again, please let me know directly; I appreciate you taking the initiative.”

Notice how this focuses on the positive, and ends the meeting on a higher note than it started? That is what constructive feedback is all about: it is motivating, and encourages your team to work smarter.

Step 9: Implement the action points

It’s vital that you now follow through with any promises you made, or you will lose your team’s respect. (Conversely, if you follow through immediately, you will go up in their estimation – which is great for motivation and teamwork.)

In the example here, the manager would (a) call Fred into the office for a private one-on-one to discuss the quality control issues; (b) get to the bottom of those quality control issues; and (c) provide feedback to the other employee(s) on progress and actions, seeing as the problem affects a number of individuals and departments.


  1. Decide whether the feedback is urgent or can wait till the next weekly one-to-one meeting
  2. Give the feedback in private
  3. State the purpose of your feedback in a constructive manner
  4. Describe what you’ve observed – and be specific about it
  5. Describe the outcome and consequences
  6. Let the other person respond to what you’ve said
  7. Make positive suggestions
  8. Summarise the action points
  9. Implement the action points.

Want some more help with constructive criticism?

Recruit NZ can provide you with personalised training and coaching – or if you’re a monthly retainer client, we can take care of the staff feedback sessions for you.

Contact us to find out more: call 09 280 3977 or email

Contact us to find out how we can help your business.

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Tanya Gray is your strategic HR partner, passionate about driving clients’ productivity with innovative solutions and collaboration.

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