You need to earn the right to give constructive criticism.  Here’s how:

  1. Someone asks for it (i.e. "Stephanie, do you have any suggestions about how I can do a better job responding to your query and being a useful source for your articles?”)
  2. Your title grants you permission (you’re the consultant, boss, mom, customer, etc.)
  3. A formal space has been carved out for feedback relating to a particular project (“Let’s have a post mortem on how that project could have gone better”) 

If you haven’t earned the right to give constructive criticism, and you have some that you think would be really useful, you need to ask permission.  Be open to the idea that they might say no.

Remember that song from Free to Be You And Me with Marlo Thomas? “…and some kind of help… is the kind of help…we all can do without

Once you have earned the right, use the well-known and documented best practices:


  1. Wedge the criticism between some positive feedback.  You have to be able to point to what they’re doing right as well as what they’re doing wrong. In general, you should be giving 5 pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative.  Asking managers to get into this habit does wonders for strengthening morale and results.
  2. Don’t make it personal, and don’t make it permanent.  It’s not “You’re so bossy” (vague, and for all-time)  it’s “At yesterday’s  meeting, you didn’t ask for other opinions and didn’t include the rest of us in the decision making” (specific)
  3. Make it actionable.  Be sure that there are some ideas about how they can do things differently next time.  For example “Next time, it would be great if you started the discussion by taking a quick survey of the room to hear what everyone thinks”


At this point, though I think most people know how to give constructive criticism.  The bigger issue is giving it at the wrong time or when it’s not your role.

We are living in a Membership Economy, where we have long term formal relationships with organizations and the other members of those organizations.  Having clear and positive communications becomes more important than ever before, so understanding how to have difficult conversations has become a key success factor.