Giving constructive criticism using emotional intelligence, an outline

Providing constructive criticism within the workplace is an important skill for every manager to master if they are looking to build a successful, high-functioning team. If you’re nervous about delivering constructive criticism to your direct reports, don’t worry, that’s natural. The good news if that you can use those natural reactions to give constructive criticism at the right time and in the right way.

Ladders spoke with emotional intelligence expert Jen Shirkani and Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of coaching company Box of Crayons and author of the upcoming book The Advice Trap, to learn how managers can use neuroscience and emotional intelligence to deliver the most useful feedback that will actually be put into practice.

Constructive criticism definition

Constructive criticism is the process of delivering both positive and negative feedback on a matter to another person in hopes of promoting further development. Whereas criticism is often viewed as only the negative aspects, constructive criticism focuses on growth and progress.

Constructive criticism is a bit of an oxymoron, according to Shirkani. ‘Construct’ means to build something, so something constructive should be something positive that builds an employee up, not tears them down. On the flip side, the word ‘criticism’ is received negatively by most.

“The goal of constructive criticism is that you’re giving feedback that builds and improves, instead of only identifying what’s wrong,” Shirkani said.

Constructive criticism synonym

“I try to avoid ‘criticism’ because it’s almost like right out of the gate it gets people somewhat defensive,” Shirkani said.

Here are phrases that you can use in place of constructive criticism:

  • constructive feedback
  • corrective feedback
  • realignment

How neuroscience plays into this process

Neuroscience comes into the conversation of giving advice because our brain affects the way we approach each conversation. According to Bungay Stanier, your brain, at an unconscious level, is constantly scanning the current situation to determine whether it is safe or dangerous. Your brain asks, is this a place of risk or a place of reward?

During a conversation of feedback, you want to make sure it feels like a place of reward. If it feels like a place of risk, their brain will kick into flight or fight mode, and they will instinctually back away, most likely in a figurative sense over a literal one.

“If it feels like a place of reward, then people are more open, they’re more able to see different points of view, they’re more willing to hear feedback,” Bungay Stanier said. “You basically get the best version of the person if it feels like it’s a safe place for them.”

So, how do you make a feedback conversation feel like a safe situation? Well, that is where the TERA quotient comes in. There are four main drivers that affect whether or not a conversation feels safe: Tribe, Expectation, Rank, and Autonomy.


“The brain is asking a basic question which is, are we in this together or is it you versus me? If it feels like we’re in it together, it feels safer. If it feels like you versus me it feels more dangerous,” Bungay Stanier said.

How to optimize tribe:

Even where you position yourself during this conversation affects the tribe aspect. Rather than sitting across the table from your employee, you can sit caddy corner or even next to them.

During the conversation, you should use “we” statements rather than “you.” Say, “we will figure out how to work on this in future projects” rather than “you need to sort this out.”


When it comes to expectation, the brain questions if it knows what is about to happen. If it knows what’s about to happen it feels safer, but if it’s unknown it feels more dangerous.

How to optimize expectation:

Managers can make employees feel safer by making clear what is about to happen.

“So I could say, ‘I want to give you some feedback about the project you just turned in. It’s really strong, but I want to talk to you about the opening paragraph and how you buried the lead and I think it will just take a couple of minutes,'” Bungay Stanier said. “Rather than me saying, ‘Come into my office…I’ve got some feedback for you.’ You can see the difference and the emotional impact of that.”

By providing you certainty, employees will be more likely to want to hear what you have to say.

When receiving feedback, the brain asks ‘are you more or less important than me?’ If a person feels of the same or a similar level of importance, that’s more engaging. If the person feels more junior, they will most likely feel less engaged.

How to optimize rank:

Rank is a sense of importance and one of the best things you can do to increase rank is to ask questions.

Here are examples of questions you can ask to level out how someone feels about rank:

  • I’ve got some thoughts about this project. Mostly I like it. I’ve got one or two things I might suggest to do differently next time. But I’m curious to know, what do you think is the strongest part of this article you’ve written?
  • In retrospect, what might you change?
  • What might you do differently?
  • What was the hard part about putting this project together?
  • What came easy to you?
  • What feedback would you give yourself about the article?

When it comes to autonomy, the brain is evaluating whether the other person is making all the decisions or if they get to make some decisions, too. If your manager is making all the decisions, it feels less engaging. If the employee has some say in it, it’s more engaging.

How to optimize autonomy:

Asking questions is an important part about optimizing autonomy, too. By asking you questions and letting the employee make decisions, you give them more of a sense of control.

Here are examples of questions you can ask to increase feelings of autonomy:

  • I want to give you some feedback about this project, do you want to do it now or a little later on today?
  • Would you like to speak in my office or in your office?
  • Would you rather go grab a coffee?
  • Do you want to go first in terms of thinking about feedback on the project, or should I start?

How to give constructive criticism

While some like to use the “sandwich method” of delivering feedback, which is to provide positive feedback followed by negative feedback, and then a positive tip, but Shirkani recommends that managers stay away from this method.

“People start to figure it out…as soon as they hear the compliment they’re bracing themselves for what’s coming,” Shirkani said. “Also, some people have a hard time with the hard, corrective stuff so they sugar coat the corrective and it gets sandwiched in with all this positive and people can leave not really hearing the message that they need to hear.”

Shirkani recommends separating feedback out instead of using the sandwich method. In one conversation, a manager delivers all praise.

Here is an example of that type of conversation:

“I’m going to give you some feedback on how you handled yourself in that meeting. I think it was wonderful. You had a lot on your plate and you were so prepared. You showed up, you made me so proud that you are on my team.”

When Shirkani needs to deliver some corrective feedback, she would rather just focusing on that correction and leave the positive feedback for a separate conversation. Instead, Shirkani likes to start a feedback conversation by acknowledging their good intentions.

Steps for delivering constructive criticism

According to Bungay Stanier, there are four important steps to giving out constructive criticism in the workplace: define it, diminish it, deliver it, and debrief it.

1. Define it

The first step to giving out advice is to define the right moment. When you’ve asked questions to the employee and been curious about a topic, but you get to the point when asking more questions will become irritating, annoying, and not helpful, now is the time to offer advice.

2. Diminish it

If you’re the boss of this person, advice lands like it’s the absolute truth, even if you just have a thought, a suggestion or a half-idea. Bungay Stanier recommends that managers start off by diminishing their advice a bit so that employees feel welcome to share their thoughts as well.

Here are some phrases to help open the floor to more of a conversation than a demand:

  • Here’s my best guess…
  • This is my first idea…
  • One option that might work is…

Of course, after delivering that thought, it is important to ask the employee how they feel about the situation.

3. Deliver it

This is where you deliver how you feel, your thoughts for improvement, and next steps in the process.

Debrief it

The debriefing portion of the oppress is extremely important for both manager and employee. Debriefing makes the employee own the advice, reflect on it, and extract the value.

“It forces you to go back, reexamine what I said and engage with it in a different way,” Bungay Stanier said.

Here are the five most powerful questions managers can use to debrief a conversation afer giving feedback:

  1. Did it help? Did it actually solve the problem?
  2. Does that give you what you were looking for?
  3. Is that what you wanted?
  4. Does this feel like the right advice?
  5. Does this idea spark any new ideas for you?

Constructive criticism example

Example for someone who has been running behind on deadlines:

“I know you’ve been working a lot of hours and I know you have a lot on your plate right now. I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. I get what is going on here, but something that has come up that I think you need to be aware of. We need to come up with a way that you can make your deadlines from now on. In your opinion, what is the biggest hindrance to that happening right now?”

Common ‘donts’ of delivering constructive criticism

  • Don’t be too vague or general.  Managers want to give specific feedback so that it is clear cut to an employee. Don’t say ‘I see this a lot from you,’ or ‘this is something you’re doing all the time. Instead, managers need to give a very specific example of the behavior that they no longer would like to see. If there’s a meeting in which someone is interrupting a lot, pull them aside afterward and have a conversation about the inappropriate behavior, using the meeting that just took place to show them how their actions affect the team.
  • Giving feedback that’s third hand, hearsay, or a rumor. If managers can try and see what they are giving feedback on firsthand, that’s always stronger than giving, ‘I heard through the grapevine’ or ‘your coworker so and so said that you’ve been doing XYZ.’
  • Giving feedback late. Sometimes companies have midyear or annual reviews and somebody did something or has been doing something for months, and they don’t hear about it until their review time. That’s always hard. You’re like, I would’ve changed this and done something different if you had told me sooner. Why have I been doing this for six months and hearing about it now? So the feedback that’s not timely is also a no-no. People feel set up when that happens.

Constructive criticism in the workplace

Timing. It’s something that is important in every aspect of life but is often difficult to get right.

The timing of giving feedback is critical because you want each participant in the conversation to be at their best.

If you’re not a morning person, don’t do it in the morning. If you’re not an afternoon person, don’t do it in the afternoon. If you’re opposite of the person you’re giving feedback to, if they are better in the morning and you’re better in the afternoon, then meet over lunch.

“Have the self-awareness, and social awareness, to pick a time when the person will be receptive to the message, and you might be in a better place to give it,” Shirkani said.

Why it’s important in the workplace

“We as leaders agonize over giving critical feedback to employees because it’s hard, we worry about it…sometimes we avoid it or delay it because it’s uncomfortable,” Shirkani said. “But if you remind yourself that the best employees, the ones who typically get a lot done every day and are the hardest workers want the feedback…even critical feedback.”

Employees you want to keep on your team are the ones that are very open to being accountable and want you to speak up if there’s something they can do better. If an employee is completely against hearing constructive criticism, you probably have a bigger problem on your hands.

“There’s a lot of research on turnover rates and the people who tend to not make it in a new job are the ones that are not coachable, which means that they are not open to hearing feedback,” Shirkani said. “So it is a critical factor for most employers to ensure that they have employees that are coachable, that are open to hearing feedback.”