how to criticize someone’s work without making it awkward

So, you’re working with someone whose work isn’t exactly what you need it to be, and you need to ask them to do it differently. Maybe you’re their manager, or maybe you’re a peer who’s overseeing the project they’re working on. Maybe the correction is relatively minor, or maybe it’s a big deal. Either way, if you’re like a lot of people, having to tell a colleague that they’re doing something wrong makes you anxious. But if it’s done well, giving constructive criticism doesn’t have to be awkward or unpleasant for you or your co-worker. Here’s how to do it.

1. First, know that giving and receiving corrections at work is very, very normal.

It’s both common and normal to need to make tweaks to a project or the way someone is approaching their work. Part of that is because none of us are mind readers and so people aren’t always on the same page initially about how a project should play out. Part of it is that none of us are perfect, and we make mistakes or approach things sub-optimally. Corrective feedback isn’t a referendum on anyone’s value as a person — it’s just a normal and expected part of the process of improving work.

2. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

If you’re feeling anxious about giving someone feedback, put yourself in their shoes. Do you resent your own manager when she asks you to approach something differently? Or does it feel like a pretty normal and expected interaction? (It should be the latter, assuming your manager doesn’t handle feedback like a jerk.) Plus, you probably want to know how you could improve your work and wouldn’t appreciate someone withholding important feedback from you out of fear of awkwardness — thus leaving you to repeat the same mistake or work quality problem over and over. Assume that whoever you need to deliver feedback to also appreciates knowing how to make their work better.

This is important for everyone, but it’s especially crucial for managers. You can’t shy away from giving your employees feedback if you’re the one in charge; you have a professional and ethical obligation to talk to them about where they stand and how they could do better.

3. Be thoughtful about your timing.

While you need to be committed to giving feedback if you manage people or projects, that doesn’t mean that you should give it whenever it occurs to you without thinking about your timing. If someone is having a tough day or a tough week, or if they’re clearly harried and focused on something higher-priority, wait until they’re in a calmer and more receptive place. (That said, don’t wait forever. Some bad weeks stretch into bad months, and you can’t put feedback on hold for that long. But if the circumstances allow for it, try to be emotionally intelligent about your timing.)

4. Don’t serve up a feedback sandwich.

If you’ve ever read a management book, you’ve probably heard of the “feedback sandwich”: a technique where you sandwich criticism in between two compliments. The idea is that by praising the person at the start and end, you’ll make it easier for them to accept the criticism.

It’s a bad technique. Don’t use it! For one thing, people will pick up on what you’re doing and your praise will start to seem insincere. People will also start bracing for criticism every time you praise them. Plus, if you bury your real message in the middle of the conversation, it can get lost.

5. Be matter-of-fact.

The person receiving your feedback is likely to take their cues from you. If you sound tense and worried about their reaction, or uncomfortable having the conversation at all, people are much more likely to react as if this is a tense, uncomfortable conversation. Even if you do secretly feel anxious, showing that will only make the conversation harder on the other person. The best thing you can do is be matter-of-fact — as if this is just like any other work conversation. Think of the tone you’d use to say “hmmm, the printer needs more toner,” or “could you grab that call for me so I’m not late to my meeting?” You want a similar tone here.

By approaching the conversation matter-of-factly, you’ll convey: “this is normal, it isn’t the end of your career, and you don’t need to hide in the bathroom for the rest of the day.”

And truly, you should want feedback to be a regular, normal thing, because regular feedback leads to better work outcomes. Feedback shouldn’t be rare, or reserved for a Big Deal Meeting with a box of tissues carefully placed on the table between you.

6. Put the feedback in context.

You don’t want to go into the conversation thinking you’re making a minor correction and have the other person leave thinking their whole project was a disaster. Conversely, you don’t want them to leave thinking something is minor if in fact it’s quite serious. So make sure that you put the feedback in context. If it’s minor, say it’s minor, and explain that the rest of the work was good. If it’s a big deal, don’t berate them or be a jerk, but make sure that your words convey the significance of the problem.

7. Be clear about what should change.

It might sound obvious, but sometimes people explain that something was wrong or needs to be done “better” without explaining what “better” means. It’s easy to assume that the other person has the same mental frame of reference that you do — which can lead to using shorthand like “this draft needs to be more polished” or “make this more punchy.” It might be totally clear to you what you mean by that, but the person you’re talking to might have a different idea of what you mean (or no idea). So spell out what you’re looking for. For example, instead of “more polished,” you might say, “When you send me a draft, can you make sure it’s fact-checked, proofread, formatted correctly, and ready to send out?”

It’s also smart to check to make sure the other person understands the feedback the way you intend. Especially if something is fairly complex, it can help to end the conversation with something like, “To make sure we’re both on the same page, do you want to run through your takeaways for the next draft so we can both make sure we covered everything?”

8. Be open to the other person’s perspective.

Feedback shouldn’t be a monologue. It should be a discussion, and it’s important to listen to the other person’s perspective. They might tell you something that changes your mind, and you don’t want to be so committed to your initial assessment that you don’t hear it if they do.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    Thank you for #4.

    If there is one management suggestion that I wish would die it’s this one.

    And if I had a magic wand I would grant everyone the universal understanding that correction means ‘I need you to do this thing differently’ not ‘you suck at everything you do, I hate you, please feel bad about yourself.”

    1. 1234*

      “Feedback sandwich” – I had some managers at OldJob who did that to me. I was also told that I needed to be “softer” whenever I was providing feedback (not to direct reports – I didn’t have any – but to vendors). While they didn’t tell me necessarily what to do, I picked up on their “feedback sandwich” and started doing it. By my next review, I was told that I was “improving.”

      I HATED having to do this because I’m a “cut to the chase” type of person and didn’t think “Please make the teapot blue instead of red and show us a new drawing” to be rude.

      *shrugs* Now I work somewhere that doesn’t care for this feedback sandwich and people will say things like “I don’t like that photo in the PowerPoint. Can you please find another one?”

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        I had never heard of that phrase until Toastmasters, and I never used the feedback sandwich there either, lol.

      2. Amethystmoon*

        Yeah, Toastmasters used to train new members on this format. (i.e. tell them what they did well, tell them what they could improve on, and tell them what you liked about their speech, then thank them for having given it). I’m kind of glad that Pathways has gone to a more observational method and think managers could learn from it. Something like, “I observed that you did x but it would be more helpful if you did y instead,” rather than just lecturing or chastising someone for a minor error.

        1. Artemesia*

          There are settings where this structure makes sense and learning to give speeches is one of them or any sort of volunteer activity. It is a form of cheerleading. Of course you focus on the things that worked — and identify things to improve. It wouldn’t be terrible in a performance review either where both things should be addressed. Where the S sandwich falls down is used cynically as a gimmick to ‘soften’ criticism and it often obliterates it for the clueless who don’t hear the criticism or angers those who see it as shallow and manipulative. If I am doing an annual review I need to do something like it. If I am trying to get you to assemble the PR kit differently all I need to do is focus on what you need to do to correct the task at hand.

    2. Blue Horizon*

      My last management trainer used to call this the “shit sandwich.”

      I think the underlying motivation behind it (find ways to manage possible emotional impact) is valid, but the method is off. Alison’s other points offer some better ways to accomplish the same goal. One problem with it is that it reinforces the idea of constructive criticism as a bad thing, which it should not be if done right.

  2. Engineer Girl*

    It’s also important to know that even if you do all the right things it may not be well received.

    Some people don’t have an accurate view of their work even if you explain it to them. This is especially true of less competent individuals.

    Some people aren’t used to receiving critical feedback. Even when you make it about the work they will see it as personal.

    In short, there’s a technical side and a human side.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I have also found that narcissists and insecure people will give the greatest pushback.

      The more emotionally balanced employees will be the ones most likely to listen because they want to improve.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        OMG, I just wrote about a narcissist below, lol. Ugh! I work with a couple of sales guys who think they’re naturally good writers (they’re not), so they don’t have to accept my corrections or make the changes I suggest that are apart of our best practices – oddly enough, the genuinely semi-decent writers on the sales team (and sometimes in our marketing department) are very open to minor corrections/direction from me. Some of them even proactively seek out my opinion to make sure what they’re trying to convey makes sense to a non-technical, which I am. I appreciate those types. The other ones? Ugh – I end up getting a drink after dealing with these people.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          The rule:
          The more Dunning-Kruger the less willing to accept feedback. They are inversely proportional.

          1. gsa*

            “Inversely proportionate”

            And I thought I was the only one that used that term!

            pv=mrt taught me that many moons ago.

            I will admit, I did have to look up the Dunning-Kruger reference. I thought it was a new film… :D

    2. MsChanandlerBong*

      We hired someone to help me out with my workload, but he isn’t all that helpful because he has no ability to be proactive or take initiative. For example, we gave him a short project from one of our long-time clients. The client forgot to send over the project instructions. Instead of speaking up and saying, “Hey, I need more info to do this task,” he didn’t say anything, fumbled through it, and then turned in a project that was not even close to 50% correct. When my boss simply said “If critical information is missing, you need to speak up and let us know,” the new guy literally said, “Why am I being treated this way?” He can’t accept critical feedback at all.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        His response to the feedback isn’t great, but sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know. He may not have realized that critical information was missing, because he didn’t know enough. He might have figured, “this is what I was given, so I must somehow figure it out with just this”, not knowing that it would be easier and correct with more information.

        If so, his response even makes a bit of sense – “why am I being criticized for not asking for something I didn’t know to ask for?”

        Or maybe, since you’re closer to the situation, it was obvious that critical information was missing, and he had the resources to know that.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          Yeah, even so, his response is weird and overly personal as if his very essence was being criticized when it wasn’t.

        2. MsChanandlerBong*

          Yeah, I should have provided more details. When a client submits an order, they can leave a short comment on the order page, and then they attach the full instructions in a PDF or Word doc. This guy has been with us for three years (two as a contractor, one as a FT employee), so he knows how/where to get the info. In this case, the client left a couple of words in the comment section and didn’t attach anything. It’s like if a teacher told you that you had a homework assignment and the only info you got was a comment that said “Periodic Table.” You would need to ask for more info. Do you want an essay on how the table was developed? Do you want me to pick an element and write about it? Do you want me to write about how the elements are organized?” How many pages/words? And so forth.

      2. Artemesia*

        This guy needs to be fired. Not immediately because he is incompetent — maybe he can learn but because his response is that feedback is oppressing his baby azz. He will never be worth having around.

    3. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah, I think about this a lot because I struggle with feedback (both giving and getting) and I know that I’m oversensitive / being perfectionistic. If a boss has an employee like me, they would also have to be somewhat prepared that even if they do everything right, my reaction may be a little stilted – and that’s MY problem, and hopefully my boss would expect me to manage that.

    4. pentamom*

      And some quite reasonable people have an initial negative emotional reaction to criticism, and then adapt and become reasonable and learn from it after they process it. So even an negative initial reaction isn’t necessarily a sign that things will not go well.

      1. Clay on my apron*

        I’m like this, sometimes. Usually when I’m stressed and I struggle to conceal my reaction. But when it happens, I’ll often say right away, “you’ll have noticed that my initial reaction to your feedback was to push back, but I’m starting to process it and it makes sense.”

  3. MOAS*

    This is really helpful, thank you.

    I can think of million ways of NOT to do it but ways to do it. I’m still torn about the “feedback sandwich.” But probably b/c I was used to getting feedback in a certain way (not a very nice way, lol).

    1. Engineer Girl*

      Feedback sandwiches make you feel bad about your achievements. It’s like they threw you a bone after they beat you.

      You’ll always be wondering if they truly meant what they said about the good stuff. Did you deserve that praise or were they merely fabricating a nice thing to meet the requirement?

      1. Yorick*

        Right. And you do the feedback sandwich because you want to criticize the work. So the compliments end up being sort of perfunctory, when they’d be real and meaningful if you didn’t try to give them at the same time as the criticism.

      2. Aquawoman*

        I think the feedback sandwich sends the opposite message from the matter-of-fact attitude that you really want to go for. It’s almost like saying, well, I’m going to tell you something terrible about yourself so let me cushion that instead of viewing the feedback as just feedback.

        1. Artemesia*

          This is what it looks like to me too. A calm re-direction is not an evaluation of your life’s worth but a very delicate approach with initial mollifying suggests the criticism is huge and threatening.

      3. Filosofickle*

        My reaction to a sandwich is to immediately discard the compliment part and focus on the negative part. I hear the compliment as disingenuous or at least beside the point.

        While consulting for a medical group, I sat in on some “train the trainer” sessions aimed at nurses. This organization has nixed all feedback sandwiches. Their rationale: sensitive sorts (like me) will only hear the negative part and walk away with the impression they’re failing, yet underperformers who really need to hear the criticism will focus on the good bits and walk away with the impression they’re doing fine. So no one actually hears what they need.

        Their suggestion was to give more frequent feedback, one issue at a time and in the moment where possible. See something great? Pull Fergus aside and say, hey I saw what you did there great job. See something that needs to be adjusted? Pull Fergus aside and coach them. Then each one is unambiguous.

    2. Damn it, Hardison!*

      I HATE the feedback sandwich so very much. My favorite worst example is of the manager who scheduled a meeting with me to get my “valuable feedback” on how things were going in the department (not well), brought me a chocolate croissant, and then wrapped up a meeting by telling me that my attitude was negative (as evidenced by such actions as someone complaining that I didn’t say hello to them in the morning and my face having a “look”). But she ended it by saying that she appreciated my contributions, so I guess that was supposed to soften it. To this day I chocolate croissants piss me off.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      If a person goes a long time with no compliments, a compliment sandwich can look good. It’s after a bit the person can start to think about it and realize, “They had to think of two positive things to tell me one negative thing. Now, did they really mean those positive things or were those nice things not real but just content filler.”

      It can grate on people.

      Compliments can be used strategically to drive good performance. Compliments can also be used to teach, “I like the way you handled XYZ. Please continue to handle similar situations that way. That was a very good idea.” But compliments should stand alone, just as constructive criticism should stand by itself. I tried as often as possible to explain to the person what made their choice so good. “You are right in assuming there maybe a problem with X when you do XYZ, so your system of double checks is wise.”

    4. Guacamole Bob*

      The thing about the feedback sandwich is that when it’s genuine, it’s often good to pair criticism with something positive or reassuring. There are examples all over this thread – a boss being reassuring after a big mistake, someone complimenting some sections of a written piece while suggesting changes to a different section, etc. And even if you don’t include something positive, it’s usually good to hit a tone that’s not too harsh.

      I think the feedback sandwich idea probably came about because “don’t be a dick” was too vague for a lot of people. It’s a rote formula that really doesn’t work if the mix of positive and negative isn’t genuine or organic, but I can see how it was invented as a coaching tool. I had a colleague give some overly harsh written feedback recently, and he had genuine difficulty figuring out how to edit the document when we told him to change the tone. He bristled at the idea of including compliments just for the sake of being nice when the memo was about the reasons we didn’t select a particular proposal. I can see a manager instructing someone like my colleague to use a formula for feedback, since he is just bad at certain types of interpersonal stuff. (Someone else edited his draft before it went out, thank goodness.)

  4. Fortitude Jones*

    #7 is very important and I always do this because I hate receiving feedback from someone that’s like, “I don’t like this.” Okay, great – so then how should this be changed?

    That being said, even when you give explicit feedback, some people still don’t listen. Part of my job is coaching/training sales people to write proposals (*sigh* this is not great for many reasons), and I almost lost my shit on one of my sales guys yesterday. I’ve been working with him for two weeks now showing him examples of well-written proposals and giving him tips from my training guides on how to pull his sales strategy together – I even gave him copies of the guides so he could reference them later. He kept sending me drafts that were totally unusable – they were poorly written, unfocused, and I had no clue what his sales strategy was even after talking to him about it.

    I asked if he was reading the handouts I gave him and the examples, and he claims he did, but I know he didn’t because he wouldn’t keep making the same effing mistakes if he did! And then when I corrected his mistakes, this guy had the nerve to reject the corrections saying that he thought his version was better because of brevity (dude – executive summaries are only one page when the proposal is page-limited, otherwise, it’s an effing cover letter) – I just got so fed up with his utter lack of care or regard for the readability of his damn document, that I just gave up and told him to send whatever he wanted to the proposal manager in charge of submitting it and leave me out of it going forward.

    I usually love my job, especially when I get a sales team member who is open to feedback and any help they can get (which has been most of them, thankfully), but this guy? Yeah, he almost made me throw my laptop off my balcony and quit this job.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I forced people to use checklists with key topics.

      Some people will still ignore the checklist and tell you it’s unnecessary. These are the people most likely to do bad work.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Unfortunately, my work is such that checklists can’t really be A Thing. Some of them just need an attitude adjustment so they can do semi-decent work without me needing to hold their hands every five minutes.

    2. Lynca*

      I always come back to the fact that I can’t force a person to take their performance more seriously. I can be explicit in what needs to be fixed. I can document that we’ve worked on it and given them checklists, guides, one on one coaching, etc.

      But I can’t sit there and make sure they do the work and get my work done too. At some point they have to fail and hopefully learn from that.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        The “let them fail” approach is definitely one I’ve adopted since accepting this position. If the sales team wants to continue to submit piss poor work to customers, which adversely affects my company’s image, and they ignore corporate directive that they need to accept my help, then that’s on them. They can explain to the C-suite why their bids suck and why they keep losing opportunities they should have had in the bag.

    3. Samwise*

      I taught writing for many years (college students, MBA students, science grad students, mid-level business managers), and I also have worked as an editor for both corporate and tech employers.

      Here’s what I know: people CAN read your handouts and your examples and still not be able to put it in practice. Even people who are TRYING to do it, have good intentions, and think that they are following through. And, while you can see the difference in the “good examples” and your colleague’s poor writing, your colleague really and truly may not be able to see it.

      So if your job is to teach/coach your sales guys on writing proposals, and this guy is not getting it (and btw, two weeks is really not that long a time, especially if the proposal-writing is not the most important part of sales guy’s job), you need to figure out a different way to teach it. Cuz examples and handouts clearly are not cutting it.

      Every teacher loves to have that eager student, or even a reasonably compliant student. The ones who don’t get it, or who are resistant = that’s when you earn your pay.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        In the proposal world, two weeks is often what you get – deadlines are what they are. This is why I’m not sure why this company didn’t just hire proposal writers from jump to write and get input from the sales team – this isn’t the latter’s forte. Most of them are not writers.

        And as for this guy, I specifically walked him through examples for his own document, and tried to get him to write sentences with me on the line – no dice. I should have known he was going to be a problem because one of the very first things he said to me was basically that he didn’t need a lot of help with this proposal since he used to write sports stories for his school paper. That has absolutely no correlation to being able to write persuasive sales proposals, but okay.

        Now, I had another guy who was defensive about feedback, but after working with him for four days (e.g., going line by line with feedback and corrections, walking him through handouts/training guides, etc.), he got it. I still had to polish it up a bit, but the foundation was there, and I fully believe it’s because he was actually willing to do the work and listen. Everybody’s busy in our business – everybody has other priorities that compete with proposal deadlines. But again, deadlines are deadlines, and sometimes, they’re immovable so we have to just push through as best we can. That’s where having a good attitude comes in, which I can’t make people have.

      2. Engineer Girl*

        Some people are really bad at pulling all the relevant information out of text. That’s why creating checklists from information guides helps.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          If you can create checklists, sure. For proposals, checklists are really only feasible on the proposal manager side of things – it helps them to know exactly what needs to be submitted with any given bid. But for actually writing the proposal? Not really because the sections and topics are going to vary depending on what product or service you’re pitching and the customer’s formatting preferences. Believe me, the PMs would have already created checklists for the sales folks if they thought it would help (and our sales team does technically have proposal forms they’re supposed to fill out prior to an RFP release, but the majority of them just…don’t).

      3. Yorick*

        In most situations, people just are not reading the handouts. Sure, reading an example proposal isn’t at all enough to do it perfectly the first time. But if my handout says “don’t put a title page on the assignment,” they can understand that and not use a cover page – and yet, half of them have a damn cover page! (This is a real story from my current class of college seniors.)

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          EXACTLY! I see this kind of thing a lot – when I give specific feedback on what not to do, please don’t do it anyway when I’ve explained why it’s not recommended. And with my position, I’m trying to be realistic here – everyone is not a writer. No matter how much time and energy someone puts into a piece, if they’re just not good, it is what it is. I’m not aiming for exceptional writing on the first try – in fact, I tell the people I work with that we may need to have several sessions together to get something that’s decent on paper, and that’s fine (my boss, on the other hand, has completely unrealistic expectations of what we can get the sales team to do, but that’s another story). Be open – ask questions, take feedback and try to apply it, have good energy and a curiosity to learn and do better. That’s all I ask.

    4. Freya*

      If someone can’t write it’s not that they’re not listening or not taking care. You need to actually sit down, plan it out together and write it together.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Everyone is all over the globe so sitting down together in person wouldn’t happen – it’s how the company’s set up. And even still, people who can’t write just can’t write – no amount of coaching is going to turn 50 Shades of Grey into Lolita. I just want passable work that I can understand so I can go behind them and fix it. Thankfully, most of the sales folks I’ve worked with can do that and have genuinely good attitudes about it – I always thank them profusely for being good sports and putting in the effort needed to get these projects over the finish line.

  5. Michael Valentine*

    When I saw the headline, I immediately thought back to a meeting I had where the manager said something needed to be “punchier”. How funny that wording was called out in the article. That project ended up a disaster as I tried to throw darts in the dark in hopes of figuring out what punchy meant.

    Specific feedback is so much better. Timely, specific feedback, that is. Timely, specific feedback that isn’t sandwiched between empty compliments.

    1. Murphy*

      I once was given the feedback that someone told my manager that “Murphy isn’t as sunshiney as she could be” and I literally had no idea how to respond to that. (Other than, yes, no one would describe me as “sunshiney.”)

    2. Samwise*

      It’s like writing teachers who write “AWK” in big red letters in the margins. Okaaaaay, I’ll try not to be awkward? if you tell me what that means? I thought I was doing pretty well with that sentence there…. When I started to teach writing, it was one of my personal rules: never ever AWK at any student.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        I would write AWK in margins….but I also returned a “short hand list” of common mistakes, with definitions & examples, with every paper handed back. Also why I enjoyed digital grading more, because I could include comments via Word more easily.

      2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        Add to that list the random “?” in the margins next to something. No actual question asked, just the question mark. What am I supposed to do with that? I just ignore the mark until the person can use their words because if they don’t know, I don’t know.

          1. Fortitude Jones*

            Me too, but I’ve started writing that out explicitly after the question mark so there’s no confusion as to why it’s there.

          2. Mongrel*

            But it’s a context-less “This makes no sense to me”
            Is the paragraph just wrong, is it unfocussed\rambling, did a typo change the meaning of the sentence, was the idea or concept not included or just wrong?

            A “? I can’t see what you’re trying to achieve with this paragraph” or “Did you mean to say\imply X?” makes it a lot clearer.

    3. Bagpuss*

      Yes to being specific.
      I currently have a trainee with me so I am having to provide a lot of fedback, and this is somethign I’ve had to consciously try to do.
      And sometimes explicitly saying “this isn’t wrong, but I find that doing it [slightly different way] works better beacuse….” or “What you’ve done isn’t incorect, but as it is going out under my name I would prefer that you change xxx so it remains more consistent in style, the reason I do xxx is….”

  6. KHB*

    When constructive criticism isn’t just a one-time thing, but rather an ongoing, constant process, does anyone have any thoughts on how to keep it from being completely demoralizing? I’m in the middle of training/mentoring several people at a job that has a long, steep learning curve. So they’re all getting a lot of feedback from me of the form “X isn’t right, and you need to do it differently.” This isn’t because they’re bad at their jobs – just that they’re new and they have a lot to learn. (Heck, I’ve been doing the same job for years and I still have a lot to learn.)

    But I know that such a constant stream of criticism is emotionally draining, and I don’t want them to feel too down on themselves (or worse, get defensive and tune me out completely). I try to intersperse the criticism with praise of what they’re doing right, but I worry that that’s ineffective for the same reason the “compliment sandwich” is ineffective (i.e., the praise seems insincere and/or overshadows the criticism). Is there a better way?

    1. Lily Puddle*

      The few times I had to train someone on something with a steep learning curve, I would repeat every week or so after I gave feedback, “This stuff takes a long time to learn, so you’re just going to suck at it for awhile, and no one here judges you for it.” I think it helped?

      1. Evan Þ.*

        With me, one thing that really helped was the specific “This typically takes X amount of time to learn.” If you’ve taught enough people to have that number, being specific can be really reassuring!

      2. KHB*

        My (then-)boss did something like that with me when I was new at this. He gave me a ridiculously hard project and said “There’s no way this is going to turn out all that well, so just do the best you can.” In hindsight, I understand what he was getting at, but I remember at the time that that was not at all something I wanted to hear.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          Well, damn, lol. I understand how that delivery would not inspire confidence in you.

          1. KHB*

            Yeah, OldBoss’s people skills were not where they could have been. Then again, neither are mine, which is why I worry.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Oh my. The job I have now is in a new-to-me arena. For the first six months I kept saying, “I will never get this.” And my boss kept saying, “No, you actually are getting this. Keep going and don’t stop now.”

        I have been my boss in this story. I have been the person who could see the trainee was getting it when the trainee could not see it. So each time my boss said this, I thought, “role reversal”.

        At the six month mark I met some folks who were chatting about the job. They were in agreement, at the six month mark it dawns on the newbie that “I will NEVER understand this job. And I have decided not to let that bother me.” Everyone was laughing, as we all have jobs we don’t understand.

        In the end, my boss said, “The most important thing is that the person doing this job ask questions. To do that, they need to be able to spot when something is different from other things.” And that is the best understanding of my job that I will ever have.

        The bigger picture is we can only console people who allow us to console them. I had to deliberately allow my boss to be the better judge of my work and put aside my own thoughts on it. For my own part, I did keep a running list of things that I needed to learn or improve on and I methodically went down my list.

    2. SarahKay*

      Make sure they know that it’s a steep learning curve. If they’re about where they should be on the curve, tell them this also. Basically, tell them (on a reasonably regular basis) what you just told us – especially “This isn’t because they’re bad at their jobs – just that they’re new and they have a lot to learn”.
      If there are tasks where you can see clear improvement, make sure you point that out to them – “Folks, I know this is tough, and I know I’m spending a lot of time correcting your errors, but look how much better you’ve got on ‘insert tough task here’. I promise you, it may not feel like it but you are making progress.”

      Obviously if they’re not where they should be on the curve, this becomes a whole other conversation!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Some jobs it’s easier to identify how long the learning curve is. I had a job that took a full year to learn. This is because the tasks were seasonal. You had to go through the entire year to see all the different tasks.
        At the same time, that first year flew by in a heartbeat. This is because there was a steady stream of new stuff to learn.
        So this is how I described it to people what to expect. “You will be tired. You will feel overwhelmed by so many moving parts. If you ride it out, it will make more sense next year at this time.”

    3. Lynca*

      Where I work the amount of comments/criticism on your projects can be overwhelming. I’ve gotten back documents swimming in red ink! One thing is to keep all the comments based on specific corrections. “You did X this way but I need you to do it Y way.” Saying differently would be too broad here and subject to interpretation. I refer back to the training documents to support that this is the way you are supposed to do it. I also ask proactively if there are things they aren’t clear on.

      I follow up with the fact that it’s rare (extremely so) to perform a completely error free project where I work. We have multiple reviews that projects go through. They’re there to catch errors. What we want are non-repeated errors and as few as possible. It’s one thing to have an error on an obscure procedure we don’t do often, but another if you make the same error every time you do a project.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Yeah, I am an auditor and one of the things that comes up every time I go in for a refresher class is “yes, you will work super hard to follow all the guidelines and still get back a corrections document that is several pages long. It’s normal. Nobody has ever not had that. In fact, most people get another one after the first one.”

        After the damn thing is finally accepted I usually get an email with a list of compliments on the things I did well. I think that’s how they try to mitigate the frustration.

        1. Jamie*

          Also an auditor and can confirm that being able to accept corrections is part of the job…or it will kill you.

    4. Parenthetically*

      I used to teach a dead language to high school students. I understand long steep learning curves. My two cents:

      I think you just have to keep coming back to “this job has a long, steep learning curve, everyone goes through this process, it’s hard and can be demoralizing, but please know that it’s normal and that the only way to get good at it is to suck at it for a long time.” And then give people feedback about where they are in the process. If they’re down from X error rate to .5X error rate or whatever and that’s exactly where you’d expect them to be, tell them that explicitly! Give regular feedback on process, check in and let them know they’re right with the rest of the pack/right where people usually are at this point in training/whatever applies. That’s not empty praise or a sh*t sandwich, it’s important information, and it’s way more encouraging to people than false praise. Give them milestones to look toward — “Six weeks from now most people are running at _% error,” “Six months from now you’ll be at Standard J or K or maybe L, so we have plenty of time to work on Standards F and G.” And if there’s an ultimate destination, sometimes it can be helpful at particularly difficult moments to hold that up as a “hey, we’re going to get to this Way Better Place within this Finite Timeframe, and one day you’ll find all this really easy!”

      Basically, a huge part of my job was to fully normalize the experience for them and give them benchmarks along the way to help encourage them that they were heading in the right direction.

      1. Mirve*

        The milestones suggestion reminds me of my high school calculus teacher. She had pieces of paper with a date and a problem statement on the walls of the classroom. At the beginning of the year, you’re looking at those ones dated in the spring thinking how do you even start that, but then come that time, there you are and indeed you *can* solve it.

        1. londonedit*

          This is what I always tell people who want to train for a marathon or a half-marathon. Invariably they’ll start off saying ‘Oh but I just feel like there’s no way I could ever run that far!’ and I always say of course you can’t run that far *now*, that’s precisely the point of a training plan. No one is asking you to run 26.2 miles now, they’re asking you to do it in 16 or 20 weeks’ time, and in the meantime you have a training plan that leads you through all the steps along the way.

    5. Close Bracket*

      Give compliments independently from criticism. When compliments and criticism are always delivered together, that’s when people lose trust in compliments. Take some opportunities to give compliments with no criticisms.

    6. Kiki*

      Definitely keep up with providing positive feedback where you can! I think the compliment sandwich refers specifically to situations where one is trying to convey criticism and only finding two positive things to put around it to make it more palatable. Genuinely giving praise where it’s due is different and necessary for a healthy workplace. When I started coding professionally, I was really down in the dumps about the amount of criticism I’d receive on every project until my coworker took me aside and showed me how much feedback he, a very experienced engineer, got. I had to learn that my field is such where expecting no feedback is not really plausible.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        This is such a good point. We engineers are used to having our work challenged, critiqued, and improved. It’s what makes the very best product. It’s rarely personal and we don’t take it that way.

        We are so used to getting intense feedback that we are surprised when others don’t take it well. We also get surprised when someone starts making personal attacks because you gave them feedback on a product.

        It’s so very industry dependent!

        1. no, the other Laura*

          But it is focused on the work. It’s generally not, “you are a heckin idiot and I don’t know how you breathe without thinking about it,” it’s more “how did you arrive at 4000L tank size? did you consider yield losses of 30% in unit operation blahblah?” That’s important, that it is focused on the work and not on you personally.

          1. boo bot*

            This is true (ideally!) but I think that a lot of people still have to learn that “how did you arrive at 4000L tank size?” isn’t secret code for “you are a heckin idiot,” which is easier for some than others.

            1. Engineer Girl*

              Exactly this. You give feedback on a product and they respond with “you’re mean!” hunh?

      2. KHB*

        I guess my challenge then is, is there anything I can do to see “praise being due” in more situations? I mean, if I look at someone’s work and think “Wow, I’m really impressed with the way they handled Y,” I definitely tell them so – but the nature of this work means that cases like that are pretty rare. (Even in the work of people who are pretty good at this, it’s ten times easier to see what they did wrong than what they did right.) More often, it’s “OK, I see they handled Z to an adequate standard.” And I know that when I try to praise them for that, it sounds insincere.

        I’d love to be able to train myself to see more things to be impressed with in uneven-quality work – or else to find a way to praise adequacy without sounding completely stupid. Has anyone had any success in either of those things?

        1. boo bot*

          What if you dropped the idea of praise or compliments, and just factually pointed out when they did something right? I think especially when you’re learning, just that can be enough – you don’t need to be told you’re brilliant for tying your shoes, but if you’re just learning how, you do need to be told, “Yup, that’s how you tie your shoes.”

          I wouldn’t phrase it as, “You handled Z to an adequate standard,” but can you say, “Okay, you’ve got Z handled,” or just “Z is working”?

        2. Kiki*

          When you see someone new doing something adequately, saying, “It seems like you’re really getting the hang of XYZ!” could really help boost morale. Also, recognizing milestones, like their first time finishing something entirely on their own. If this position really doesn’t provide many opportunities to compliment your new workers, just make sure to periodically let them know that they’re on track and that you’re there for them if they have any questions or concerns.

          1. Kiki*

            For me at least, it was hard to transition from being in school where getting 100% on a test meant you didn’t get any feedback and A-level projects came with minimal feedback beyond “Great job!” And all the jobs I had before and during college were the types of things where you could catch on and start doing excellent work within a month. Employers shouldn’t be expected to manage employees’ emotions, but it helps to have someone guiding you through the change in expectations and reassuring you that you’re not gonna be fired.

        3. All monkeys are French*

          I did this type of training in my old job. It does get challenging to find what they’re doing right. I often found it helpful to start a conversation and ask how they felt it was going. If they could notice their own improvement, it gave me an opportunity to reinforce that, and sometimes helped me see good things I had missed. If they couldn’t, I could reassure them that they had improved and the conversation would help identify specific areas that were either clicking or not.

  7. Amber Rose*

    The sandwich sucks, but a little reassurance isn’t a terrible thing I think. Last week my boss was talking to me about a mistake that blew up pretty bad, and halfway through the conversation was like, “we rely on you for a lot and your work is good, so fix this but don’t let it ruin your day.” Paraphrased.

    It was nice to kind of have that assurance that I didn’t have a reputation as a huge screw up because I was spiraling hard underneath my professional face.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      That sounds just right to me — it’s the “hi, your X went well/15 minutes on the mistake/and nice work on Y!” that’s a problem because it’s so disingenuous.

    2. boo bot*

      I feel like the sandwich is actually a knock-off of something worthwhile, which is giving more comprehensive critiques that point out the good as well as the bad. I sometimes edit things, and to me, it’s really important to make note of the things that work as well as the things that don’t work – not to make the writer feel good (although, I would argue that’s a bonus) but because it’s actually vital information.

      Just like you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s a problem, you can’t focus on replicating the good stuff, if you don’t know it’s good! Obviously, it’s easier to do this in a document, where the person gets the positives and negatives pointed out in a meaningful way, all in one place. But I think the greater workplace version might be, give the honest, positive feedback in the moment, just like the negative feedback, and hopefully you will create a general sense that your people are appreciated.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I like this a lot, here the praise is relevant to the criticism. You were keenly aware that the mistake was not good, but you really did need to know if your job was threatened because of the size of the mistake. Your boss gave you enough so you could exhale.
      This can be important information. I took over a group who had a bad experience and had difficulty trusting what was said. I used a similar idea, “This is not earth-shattering, just fix it and our workday goes on.”

  8. Another HR manager*

    For me the challenge is that one-size does not fit all. I have a staff member who completely freezes if they feel criticized. For them, I will say “can I show you something on this report?” or “I have a couple of changes before we submit this, is now a good time?”. They always make time. They make corrections quickly. But I have to stay light. If I get anxious and apply pressure (to ease my anxiety!) it backfires and the process slows down and more mistakes are made.

    I have another staff member who doesn’t hear unless it is very direct. “You have been arriving around 11 am almost every day. I understand that you make up the time but your schedule affects other people. You need to be here by 10 am. If you are running late, you have to call to let me know.”

    1. Properlike*

      Do you tell this person – separately, after the fact – “I appreciate how you’re always receptive to feedback [not “criticism”] and able to make the necessary changes quickly. It helps with my anxiety to know I can always rely on you to get it done. Thanks!” This may help that anxious employee reframe “criticism” in their mind.

      Positive feedback independent of a given situation is easier for me (an anxious person) to accept as genuine.

      1. Another HR manager*

        I am big on Thank yous – and public acknowledgement of individual and/or group hard work and successes. But I like this more specific positive feedback – I will be aware of integrating this in.

        1. Close Bracket*

          I would not put the easement of your anxiety on your direct report. Change the suggested language to, “I appreciate how you’re always receptive to feedback and able to make the necessary changes quickly. It helps to know I can always rely on you to get it done. Thanks!”

  9. HailRobonia*

    In one of my previous jobs I was unwittingly doing a certain task wrong for months before someone finally corrected me… they had been fixing my errors (the same mistakes each time). I wish they spoke up earlier!

  10. Maika*

    For writing proposals, reports, and other types of documents, I always contextualize the process by being very clear that there will be multiple iterations of the specific document. I stress that I do not expect them to submit something to me that will be exactly up to par in the first draft. I make sure to give very clear instructions and examples and then ask them to come to me with specific questions. Another thing that I do is contextualize the audience and ask my staff to reflect on whether the intended recipients would find the document satisfactory in its current form, and how to make changes so that the document is professional and has stellar content. The coaching process takes time, but you need to invest in that if you’re going to help your staff improve their skill sets. If it’s crunch time and deadlines are looming, the problem takes on a different shape.

  11. Ellen*

    I occasionally find myself in the position of letting a co worker know that something she is doing isnt the way we are supposed to do it. Her reaction, so far, has been to cuss me out pretty thoroughly, accuse me of trying to drive her crazy, of some kind of stalking behavior. All of this in a span of 3 weeks and on 4 occasions. I’m not even her manager, just the one that has to work extra to fix her mistakes and the one assigned to train her. My bosses dont feel that they can do anything about this verbal abuse, so now I’m job hunting even though I LOVE my work and 90% of my co workers.
    I’m really angry and sad and scared

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      OMG! Why does your manager feel they can’t do anything about someone cursing you out at work?! That is not at all appropriate behavior – I’m sorry you have to job search because your manager has completely abdicated their authority here.

    2. Daffy Duck*

      Oh, I am so sorry for you! I really hope you are able to get across to the bosses that this is the breaking point for you. That coworker is not going to get better. Best of luck in your job search.

    3. Clay on my apron*

      That’s horrible! Could you set up a meeting to give her this feedback and invite your boss? Call it “Teapot Lid Catch-up” or something innocuous. People (managers) find it more difficult to ignore abusive behaviour when they’re also in the firing line. Or she may behave beautifully because there are Other People. Either way, it’s an improvement?

      1. Ellen*

        Well, she and I work in a two person, fairly interconnected position. Three of us actually trained to work either of the two positions in there; she is the most recent hire, with about a month of 3 to 4 days a week, at most, experience. My bosses all agree that this is inappropriate, but offer nothing more than a shrug. We work with food, and at the rate the abuse is escalating, I’m scared she is going to pull a knife on me. I’m not asking my employers to tell me what they are doing about this, I just want to know that they ARE doing something about this. I just wonder what they can do, short of firing her and escorting her out, that wont just trigger more abuse. I just hope I can find another job in company (we are a hospital) so I can still have my retirement account and other benefits.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      LMAO! There are tears coming out of my eyes right now.


      Remember: criticism is the same thing as wholesale condemnation and also murder, so react accordingly.

      And this:

      Fall in love with whoever criticized you. Don’t walk away until you’ve ruined their marriage.

      Whisper their criticism every night to yourself until you have it memorized, word for word. Remember it forever. Have the words stitched into the shroud that covers your body before you’re lowered into the tomb so you and your criticism can embrace one another for eternity.

      Do not rise above it. Never rise above anything. The sky is no place for a human.

      Favorite sections. OMG, lol.

  12. mark132*

    At least in my field, software, it helps to not personalize the code. So the “service code”, not “Pat’s code”.

  13. Booksalot*

    Also, acknowledge scope creep. If Pam’s teapots are melting because you didn’t tell her that the Earl Grey was upgraded to lava, that’s on you, or the project manager, or whomever. Don’t blame Pam.

    1. nonymous*

      My last supervisor was terrible at this. He would frequently change his mind or forget about the purpose of whatever change we were making so I always tried to make sure that the original plan was being actively discarded (vs. forgotten) so that I could set expectations correctly for the other team members (Software will now do X instead of Y for Reasons). And he would get defensive and tell the team I was inflexible.

  14. Freya*

    Also, sometimes something is totally fine but when you see it you realise you’d like some changes. That doesn’t mean the work is wrong or needs correcting.

  15. in a fog*

    Oh man. I’m an editor, so giving feedback is a huge part of my job. Thankfully, I’m usually dealing with writers who are used to being edited and having their work changed (sometimes drastically), but sometimes you do come across someone who’s just acting way too precious about something they produced. It helps for me to keep the focus on the project and to be VERY specific in my reasoning — i.e. “I think this section needs to focus more on how this subject learned how to paint teapots before jumping into her wildly successful career as a teapot painter, because otherwise, it feels like the transition is just too abrupt.” The writer and I are both on the same side in that we want the piece to be as strong as it can be, so it becomes a back-and-forth on ideas on how to do that, but the key is leaving your ego out of it.

    Though I did see on Twitter the other day a thread of things editors say that make writers nervous, and one of them was “This is a good start!” I totally do that, LOL. Gotta recalibrate on that one.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I’m a graphic designer, not a writer, but that phrase doesn’t bother me as much as, “It’s perfect…now just change…” So, not perfect then. Sometimes they change so much it’s a completely new design so what, exactly, was perfect? I guess I expect the first proof to be a “good start” rather than think that I nailed it on the first try (unlikely, though sometimes it happens). I’d much rather a list of specifics “I liked this…I don’t like that” but I’ve found that most non-creative clients have a really hard time even articulating that much without a lot of prompting.

    2. Gloucesterina*

      What’s a good alternative to the good start? Especially if you don’t want to dictate what the thing should precisely become?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think “this is a good start” sucks to hear because it implies “this thing that you thought was close to done actually needs a ton of work.”

        So things like “I really like a lot of this!” can be better. Or get away from that whole model entirely and just talk about what you like and what changes you’re suggesting — so, like, “I love the part on X and the part on Y is so funny! Can you work on the transition to the conclusion, and see what you think about my notes on the part about zebras?”

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          These are really good suggestions – I’m going to start using these. I always thought “good start!” was positive, but now that you wrote out the framing, I can definitely see how it could be interpreted in a negative way.

        2. Gloucesterina*

          Thanks this made me realize that I often use “good start!” As a throat clearing gesture before getting to specifics when it would be best to just dive in.

  16. Clay on my apron*

    This is really well timed. I need to give someone feedback… And I’ve been avoiding it like the plague. They are a junior colleague who is a poor fit for the role (but could grow into it – if time permits – which it doesn’t), and I need to coach them and/or assign them work that they are more likely to succeed at.

    I’d add to this, based on my recent experience:

    Set the person up to succeed in the first place. Brief them really well. Discuss their past experience with this type of work (they may not have any). Don’t make assumptions. It can feel patronising to explain something that New Colleague should know, but frame it as “we do it this way, which may be different from your previous job”.

    Monitor what they do closely, at first. Don’t wait until they have ruined your entire production run of teapot lids before taking a peak to see how they are doing. Step in before disaster strikes.

    If you tend to avoid these difficult conversations, schedule it in your diaries ahead time. It’s more difficult to wiggle out of.

    Practice the conversation in your head if you need to.

    1. Clay on my apron*

      I’m also wondering how to coach/correct someone on work that they actually don’t know how to do, but are expected to do.

      We have a new team member, Annabelle, who joined as admin and support for my role. My role is quite niche and not easy to learn.

      One of Annabelle’s roles is to attend and observe research interviews with e.g. customers who buy teapots, and take notes of everything relevant that is said and done. Analysing the observations helps us understand the customer’s teapot buying preferences and habits, why they drink tea, etc.

      The problem is that her notes are not good. I use them as the primary input into my next piece of work and I frequently find that they are not what I need, for various reasons. They might be inaccurate, they might be incomplete, she might be making inferences based on her observations. She might omit things that she feels are unimportant, but she doesn’t have the experience or standing to make that call.

      Without spending a considerable amount of time coaching her, how do I get her work to a high enough standard?

      1. 1234*

        Have you told her what you are expecting from her when you are asking her to take notes?

        “X is important. Y is less important.”
        “Don’t focus on your own analysis. Only write down what Customer says.”

      2. Bagpuss*

        Do you have notes of your own from previous meetings so you can show her concrete examples of what you need?
        I think you can also say explicitly “I notice that you don’t always make full notes, and you do note down your inference or interpretation, whereas it’s more useful at this stage to have clear, detailed notes of what the client says, not your interpretation of it” then give specific examples.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Instead of writing down her own inferences, ask her to ask the customer questions along the lines of what she thinks she is hearing.
        “Gee, you sound really excited about the teapots, is there something in particular that you are liking?”

        “So let me get this straight, were you disappointed in the color?”

        “It sounds like the teapot is not working out for you, have you narrowed down why that is?”

  17. CastIrony*

    Hello. I am learning to take criticism less personally, but it is very hard. How can I learn to do better when in my mind, I’m all, “You know, I appreciate your criticism and will improve, but because I had a boss who used to criticize me daily without letting me fix the mistakes I made, I get very upset and triggered when you and others do things and act like this previous boss did?”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      A few things I have had to think about for myself:

      I wanted a chance. I wanted to be able to prove myself. I had to give others that same chance to prove themselves. “Okay prove to me you are a nice person or a rotten apple!” I had to let go of an snap judgments and give the person a chance so that I might be granted that same chance for myself.

      Chant to myself, “Old boss is gone. Old boss is gone.” over and over until I could not stand it.

      Realize that your old boss broke your trust and it is okay to be mad at the old boss for doing that. Some folks avoid anger about anything. Anger can be useful. You can use it to strengthen your resolve to get yourself out of a bad job ASAP.

      It takes repeated positive experiences to undo a negative experience. Each day you have a positive interaction regarding problems with the work, you are one day closer to learning to trust and learning to accept people’s help.

      I had to let myself up for air. It’s a mistake, it’s not fatal. I won’t die from it. I had to forgive ME. Some where along the lines those bad boss tapes replay so much in our minds that we forget to have our own thoughts. Reclaim your own thoughts. Tell you that you forgive you and you will take steps so that particular mistake does not happen again soon.

      1. CastIrony*

        *sniff sniff* I never realized how much I don’t trust superiors. Luckily, working a couple of times a week in retail is helping me. I am learning that my susuperiors aren’t always bad (they just get mad) and completely unapproachable, except for this one new cook. He’s a total jerk, but only to me. However, I’m choosing to be superficially kind and give him a chance, which I have never done for a superior before. :)

        Thank you for your kind words.

  18. Helene*

    An addition based on a very recent episode: Please don’t give the feedback in the middle of the open plan office! It feels horrible to give explanations and defend specific choices when your coworkers – who are not a part of the work – are listening in.

  19. CM*

    I think this is fairly good advice, though, in my experience, a lot of the conflict I’ve seen (and been involved in) revolves around whether or not the person offering feedback has the ability to judge the thing they’re offering feedback on. To me, that’s more of a process and/or organizational structure problem, but I think it’s important to remember that there’s a certain amount of feedback that’s just off base. I think that, if we could get better at accounting for that, and identifying whose opinion should be weighted more on specific issues, a lot of the hard feelings would disappear.

    1. Helene*

      Absolutely, I agree. In this particular instance the assignment was translation and proofreading, and the giver of feedback decided to discuss/question/criticize specific word choice and rewriting next to an especially sarcastic and nosy coworker who felt he had to share his opinion even though he had no knowledge of the assignment. If this feedback session had taken place in an informal meeting room, both parties could explain their viewpoints better and not rush through the points.

  20. Sarah in Boston*

    I’ll recommend again with a million stars Sheila Heen and Doug Stone’s “Thanks for the Feedback”. A workshop with Sheila and then reading the book was literally life changing for me. They talk extensively about a lot of folks above me have been mentioning and lots more.

  21. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

    Don’t feedback sandwich, but remember to also note, on occasion, where people are doing well. When I’ve had bosses who *only* tell me when I’ve screwed up, it’s hard to actually gauge my performance because I don’t know what success looks like to them.

Comments are closed.