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I recently had an eye-opening insight into the effects of negative gossiping on a team project.

After about a week of starting a project with a new group of people, I started to notice that one of the team would frequently criticise others in the group to me behind their back.

This wouldn’t usually bother me too much, however, this particular project was different to the usual ones. We had been doing a lot of work on idea generation to solve the business problems we were facing, and that required us to be constantly pitching our ideas to the group and, ideally, for those ideas to be as wild and imaginative as possible.

Constantly coming up with ‘wild’ ideas means continuously putting yourself out there and, because of the criticism I was hearing, I began to have a creeping sense of insecurity as the project progressed. It’s one of those things that we all know; if someone is criticising others to you, then more than likely they are also happy to criticise you to others.

With the feeling of an unsupportive environment around me and the team, I could sense that others did not feel as comfortable expressing some of their craziest solutions, either.

Criticising others behind their back tends to create an untrusting atmosphere and, like in my case, this can hold back people from putting their best ideas out there. Our project needed wild ideas to build upon, yet the full creative potential of the group was being restricted.

What can we do instead? How can you turn your criticisms into an opportunity to help somebody grow?

How to give constructive feedback

We should all stop gossiping about people behind their backs, but what if someone is acting in a way that is detrimental to your team or project?

Learning constructive criticism skills are vital, especially for leaders. The ability to enable and grow your team’s skills, as well as increasing a sense of learning in your work environment, is vital to retaining the best employees and getting the most out of people.

“Negative or directive feedback provides guidance, leading people to become, over time, more certain about their behaviour and more confident in their competence.” – Harvard Business Review

Giving constructive feedback to people is an important and useful skill for anybody, and it isn’t always going to be positive. However, people are naturally defensive and often don’t receive criticism well. So some tact in giving constructive criticism is necessary.

Here are 2 ways to give constructive criticism:

1. The Shit Sandwich – PIP (Positive-Improvement-Positive)

This method is all about cushioning the blow. Starting and ending with a piece positive feedback allows you to slip in critical feedback without causing the defence mechanism to go off. By sandwiching your criticism, you let the receiver know you’re on their side and that you are not there to bring them down a level but to build them up, generally, this will help the person genuinely hear and take in the critical feedback. Furthermore, it forces you to recognise areas that the person is doing right.

It goes something like this:

  1. Something you think they are doing really well.
  2. Something you think they can improve upon.
  3. End your critique on a high note by returning to something you think they are doing well.

The shit sandwich is a simple but effective technique that encourages positivity.

2. Take the pressure of the person, focus on the situation

The most constructive criticism focusses on the situation, not the person.

To do this, firstly, start with detaching the person from the situation. Anybody worth giving constructive criticism too is not inherently bad, their mess up or poor performance is an opportunity to learn and to improve – they wouldn’t have done it badly on purpose.

With that in mind, try focussing solely on the situation or the behaviour they displayed instead of them. Personal attacks are never received well and are, therefore, ineffective at helping someone to grow or correct their mistake.

Giving feedback in this way is all about understanding that a poor performance doesn’t necessarily equal a poor performer – in fact, it normally signals that something else is missing that could’ve helped them succeed. Using the example of someone at work who gives a really terrible and unclear presentation, here are a couple of options of how you could give them feedback:

  1. “You are terrible at giving presentations”.
  2. “That presentation was terrible”.

While both pretty harsh, number one makes the person feel like they are bad at giving presentations, whereas number two allows for the possibility that it was just this presentation that wasn’t good, not their usual presentation skills. Creating an image of someone based on one example is not effective for you, and feeding that back to someone is putting them into a negative box – potentially affecting how they feel about their next presentation.

Creating an image of someone based on one example is not effective for you, and feeding that back to someone is putting them into a negative box – potentially affecting how they feel about their next presentation.

In addition to this, number two allows naturally for advice to follow. Number 1 is a stand-alone statement, whereas number two gives you room to say why, how it can be improved, what normally makes a great presentation, and how it affected you for this presentation to be bad.

There are many other ways to give constructive criticism. What’s your best strategy?


Find this interesting? Check out our other posts!

  1. Why we should start reflecting on our positive experiences.
  2. Does your startup tap into a deeper human need?
  3. What the expert-generalists can teach us: Musk, Jobs, Land, McKinsey.

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