For Constructively Critical Conversations, Tailor Message to Recipient

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine  

Feb. 7 --Having to constructively criticize a subordinate is difficult because “it doesn't matter what you say, it matters what they hear,” but with the right techniques it's possible to have a forward-looking conversation, Mark Murphy, CEO of Atlanta-based research and management consulting firm Leadership IQ, said in a Feb. 7 webinar.

More than 80 percent of managers say “they've avoided giving employees tough feedback because they were afraid of a bad reaction,” Murphy said during the webinar, titled “Giving Constructive Feedback Without Making People Angry.”

Yet many employees want constructive feedback so they can become better performers, he said.

Murphy's first piece of advice is to avoid conversations that consist of attacking the subordinate, “disintegrating” in front of the person, “shirking” the issue by pretending that it's someone else who thinks it is a problem, soft-pedaling the problem or using “compliment sandwiches” in which a little feedback is preceded and followed by fulsome praise.

Murphy gave the following example of an unproductive criticism session: “There are two typos in this memo I asked you to write yesterday. It's like everything I said to you yesterday was just ignored. I'm getting really irritated. It makes me wonder what else you're missing. For the next two months, I want to proofread everything you do, no matter how small.”

Such a conversation, he said, imposes negative interpretations on a bald set of facts and is likely to evoke an emotional reaction, such as being defensive, in the recipient.

Know the Employee Type

Murphy advises using one of three constructive criticism “scripts,” depending on what the recipient is like: a typical employee who is somewhat self aware, a high performer who is very self critical and probably already knows about the problem to be discussed, or an oppositional, aggressive employee.

For the typical employee, Murphy suggests opening the discussion with the phrase, “Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about …?”

This, he said, will lead most people to say yes, because the wording “flips a switch in their brain that makes them into a partner with you.”

What managers should aim for “an adult-adult conversation, not a parent yelling at a child conversation.”  


Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ

Next, he said, the manager should disarm the employee, eliminate blame and affirm the recipient's choice.

Then the manager should move on to list corrective feedback, Murphy said, to try to get the recipient to make the necessary corrective leap, such as, “I know exactly what you're talking about. I said some stupid things during that client meeting.” The last step is to synchronize both people's understanding. “Tell me how you think we can work together to build on this and make things even more effective next time.”

Avoid Pitfalls

One should avoid trigger words that make people upset and defensive, Murphy said, such as using the word “you” a lot.

Another “mistake a lot of people make is when they give corrective feedback, they give 20 minutes of it,” he said.

The manager pounds away until the person on the receiving end can no longer listen.

In short, what managers should aim for is “an adult-adult conversation, not a parent yelling at a child conversation,” Murphy said.

A constructive dialogue with a great employee can be easier, Murphy said.

“Oftentimes,” Murphy said, “high performers have already made the leap themselves” to understanding what they did wrong, so the manager can simply work with the person to figure out what went wrong and how to improve performance in the future.

Uncooperative Employees

For aggressive, uncooperative employees who respond with tactics like deflecting blame, Murphy said “a much more assertive, less partner-oriented conversation” is necessary. A manager in this circumstance might say, “I'm not going to get into a big, long conversation, I'm just going to say that those things are not going to happen anymore.”

“It's designed this way because the person who will tell you no to having a conversation,” Murphy said, “is a difficult, aggressive personality in general, who is used to getting away with whatever they want to get away with.”

Finally, a manager who says something he or she regrets in the course of giving constructive criticism should apologize for poor word choice and ask to start over. Most employees, he said, will play along.


To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at