Small Biz Advice: How to Offer a Kind Critique


Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly also heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books and teaches business classes at The Yard in Williamsburg. Her next one at The Yard is “The Secrets of Managing Relationships: The Key to Every Entrepreneur’s Success,” Tuesday, October 16th at 7pm.

Got a question for Holly about running your small business? Email her and she’ll address it in her next column:

Dear Holly,

I am the CEO of a tech start-up.  I want to know how you effectively communicate negative feedback to team members, whether they are bosses, partners or subordinates, without them taking it personally?

–Tongue Tied

Dear Tongue Tied,

This is an excellent question.  The first thing to remember is that we are not responsible for other people’s emotions.  Although easier said than done, keep in mind that you are not responsible for the way your feedback is received.  What exactly does that mean?  Should you just say whatever is on your mind?  Not necessarily.  You don’t have free reign to let it rip when you are communicating the way you feel.  Here are five easy steps to communicate negative feedback effectively.

1. A technique I like to use is to lead with what’s working.  You might be thinking, well, nothing seems to be working here, but I’m going to disagree with you.  It might take a few minutes for you to come up with it, but I’m sure you can find something that is working for this person.

People are more likely to receive negative feedback when it’s balanced with positive feedback.  I’m not saying you should dance around the issue, but it’s helpful when you can see both sides of the coin.  I used to be a very critical person and really hold a “tough love” position, but to be honest, it never got me the results I wanted.  Put yourself in that person’s position.  How would you like to be approached if this were you?

2. Be confident when you present the negative feedback.  Nothing is worse than being criticized by someone who’s uncomfortable in their delivery.  Be clear and straightforward about what’s not working.  Don’t be emotional, be direct.

3.  I also like to put negative feedback in the context of the bigger picture.  This keeps it from being personal.  You can say, “It’s important that we address this because I know we are both working towards a common goal and ultimately want what’s best for the company.”  Stay focused because at the end of the day, it’s not about you or the other person, it’s about achieving a common goal.

4. Ask for feedback immediately.  Use questions such as: Were you aware that this was happening?  How would you recommend we move forward?  What solutions do you see to this problem?  Embrace the feedback you receive.  You set a bad example for your staff if you can’t receive feedback.

5. Although you always want to give the other person a chance to express themselves, you must be prepared to offer a solution to the problem.  Make sure you’ve thought this through before the conversation so you are not reactive in the moment.

Follow these five simple steps and you’ll no longer have to worry about people taking your feedback personally.  And, you’ll be better at receiving feedback which is equally important.


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