Why ‘Constructive Criticism’ Is a Lie, According to a Career Expert

Photo: Getty Images/Hinterhaus Productions
When you’re stuck in a tough spot at work—you’re *this close* to burnout, you’re wondering whether your job is the right fit, your office culture could use a serious upgrade—who do you turn to? Your mentor, who has years of experience you can rely on? Your mom, who always keeps your best interests in mind? Or your BFF, who is dependable for a killer pep talk? Put all three perspectives in a blender, and you’ve got Good@Work, Well+Good’s career advice column. See All

When you're a manager, it's your job to give feedback, right? According to career expert Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—maybe not quite in the way you think. In this week's Good@Work column, she counsels a new manager struggling with giving "constructive criticism."


I recently started managing someone and I’m really struggling with feedback. This person is really smart and talented but also deeply sensitive—which means that they often can get defensive. Or worse, they assume that any kind of constructive criticism means they’re just inherently bad at their job (not true!). It makes me want to avoid giving them feedback altogether, although that obviously isn’t a good thing, either. How do I navigate this kind of situation?


The current thinking about office work seems to be that we should give and receive criticism, rebranded for this millennium as “constructive,” all the time. Just because that’s the conventional wisdom raining down upon us from Forbes bloggers and your HR department and your friend who heard a podcast once about “radical transparency,” that doesn’t mean that sitting employees down to give them feedback in a specific and sanctioned way works for every workplace or every boss or every worker. I’d guess that most of the time, feedback does exactly what you describe—temporarily destroys someone’s ego, which makes them defensive, which makes them angry at you and the company, and ensures all future interactions with you, their manager, are tainted with awkwardness.

Maybe the antidote to radical-transparency-fetishizing workplaces is a workplace model where no one has formal feedback conversations or performance reviews. I know, I know—No feedback AT ALL?! Quelle horreur! But really, how bad would things actually be if you didn’t sit someone down for formal feedback? Consider this question: How many feedback conversations have you had that resulted in someone doing everything you asked them to do? Zero.

Most people aren’t biologically wired to instantly act on feedback. Partly because we all have egos and the intrinsic need to preserve them, but also, most of us simply need to hear things repeatedly to understand that we aren’t perfect little angels who come into work and fart out flawless PowerPoint presentations. We all make mistakes at our jobs out of habit, even when we’re trying not to make them. And every time we make one of those mistakes, we need someone to tell us, “Hey, you f**ked that up, keep an eye out and don’t do it again.” This is why the annual review is bullshit—it takes hours of people’s time that would be better spent on actual work or eating donuts together, people begrudge that time is being taken up to tell them the ways in which they suck, and that time is often used as a means of telling someone things they should have heard multiple times previously.

We all make mistakes at our jobs out of habit. And every time we make one of those mistakes, we need someone to tell us, “Hey, you f**ked that up, keep an eye out and don’t do it again.”

Formal feedback happens when we overthink the situation or are forced to hold feedback meetings by our HR departments or middle management, neither of which has any idea what your team is like or how your department functions. These mandated meetings often serve as a way of ensuring managers have face-to-face time with their employees. Face time is a good thing—all managers should aspire to fit in as much face time with employees as possible through regular check-ins (and if you think you don’t have time for that, I have news for you: The whole job of management is having time for that). However, people you manage will only dread that face time if you’re using it primarily to tell them the things they’re doing wrong.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your employee is to try to have a relationship where you’re not friends, but you’re open enough with each other that you can provide casual feedback without it feeling like A Thing. Like when this person messes up, you should be able to Slack them or pull them aside and say, “Hey, I noticed you did this—can you please try to be more careful moving forward? I know you’re trying and you work hard, but this has come up before and I need you to make sure you look out for this. I used to make these mistakes all the time, too, but I did X and it helped me improve. What can I do to help you improve?”

Don’t yell at the person. Make them feel like you’re a part of their work journey so they don't feel alone or pitted against you. And if you really think they're talented, tell them that! Tell them when they do something amazing and smart. Because feedback is not just a means of criticizing people—it’s an opportunity to tell them what they’re doing well so they keep doing it. And if you start viewing it that way, it might not seem so scary to tell someone when they’re f**king up.

Amy Odell headshotAmy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.

Follow her on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and sign up for her newsletter here.

Have a career question for Amy? Email us at goodwork@www.wellandgood.com.

More Good@Work:
My boss is texting me on nights and weekends—how can I take back my time?
How do I prep for my co-worker’s maternity leave without excluding her before she’s gone?
It’s a myth that you need to find a mentor to get ahead at work—here’s why
I was just promoted over someone with more experience and I feel like an imposter

Loading More Posts...