Has anyone ever said to you, “I need to give you some constructive criticism”?

Did you feel yourself putting up your guard, even just a little bit?

Most of you would answer yes. All but the most confident people feel at least a little apprehensive when they hear those words. 

The problem is, when people are nervous, defensive, or just plain guarded, it’s very hard for them to really hear what you’re saying and be open to your feedback.

So what’s a leader to do?

No one likes to hear that they did something wrong but sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

If you don’t talk about it, the issue will fester, and likely get worse.

Giving feedback that people want to hear, feedback that makes a difference, and feedback that leads to lasting improvement is a skill – and one that can be learned!

Here is my proven 10 step process for giving feedback that’s well received AND sticks.

The 10-Step Employee Feedback Checklist

1.  Erase the term “constructive criticism” from your vocabulary.

No one wants to hear that anyway. Try “constructive feedback” instead, or even just “feedback”. Coaching is about building people up, so being “constructive” is key.

2.  Never catch someone off guard.

When you give feedback it’s important to make sure that the other person is in a good state – mentally and physically – if you want them to hear you. How? Ask for an appointment. When the person agrees to meet with you, it gives them a bit of control over the situation which is empowering and honours their dignity.

3.  Focus on what you want instead of the problem.

For example, don’t say, “Christine, you’re being rude in meetings”. Instead focus on the problem by stating “Christine when you walk in and out of the meeting several times, it’s distracting for everyone and makes them feel like their presentations aren’t worth your attention.”

4.  Be positive about the potential and the future.

First appreciate what went well, and highlight positive results and the good qualities you observed in the person. Note a few specific examples to illustrate exactly what you like. Secondly, express what you want, what it looks like and what will be better because of it. People appreciate positive emotions, especially when discussing difficult topics.

5.  Discuss the performance gap, not the person.

Review the actual results and real outcomes of the situation and where those landed in comparison to your expectations.

6.  Use your emotional intelligence.

Now is the time to tap into your ability to empathize. Your employee may start beating themselves up for not meeting your expectations. Don’t let them go there! Express your understanding of their situation, and empathize with their feelings. A good way to do this is to remind the person of their strengths and qualities. This will replenish their self esteem which they’ll need as they muster the energy and motivation to go back and try again.

7. Be clear.

If the person’s result was a 6 out of 10 explain what made it a 6 and describe what a 10 looks like. When you remain focused and give a concrete example of where to improve, it greatly increases the likelihood of successful change.

8. Continue to give them control.

Do this by asking them to give you a plan for how they are going to close those gaps. This approach will give you great insight on where they land on motivation and competency levels. With that insight you’ll know how much energy you’ll have to invest in motivating them, and how much you’ll have to invest in training and supervision.

9. Don’t dump and don’t micromanage.

Agree to a timeline including how often you’ll meet to review progress. Course correct accordingly.

10. Make sure you have your emotions under control.

Emotional intelligence also includes knowing how to regulate your own emotions. It’s fair to tell your employee how their performance is affecting overall results for the team and how that’s making you feel. But if you’re angry, frustrated, tearful, stressed out or impatient, it’s important to rein that in. If you don’t, you run the risk of insulting your employee’s dignity and putting your own dignity in question. When you need to vent, call your coach.


There is a subtle but powerful difference between constructive criticism and constructive feedback. One one builds people up and the other breaks people down. 

Ultimately feedback that is constructive, well-received, and sticks is feedback that allows the employee to have a role in determining the solution, to clearly understand the issue, and to keep their dignity. 

And isn’t that what we all want when having difficult conversations with our team? 

Perception and constructive feedback are skills that are essential for every leader, and ones that can be learned. They’re a core module in every leadership development program I teach, including The Coaching Academy for Leaders.

If you want to improve your emotional intelligence, your constructive feedback skills, or you just want to feel more comfortable when having difficult conversations, book a call with me to discuss how leadership development training or coaching can help.

By Corry Robertson