Top 5 Tips for Giving Effective Criticism

Although we should avoid criticizing our subordinates, as leaders we will always be faced with situations that will require us to give some sort of criticism.  In order to help you do that effectively, here are my Top 5 Tips for Giving Effective Criticism.

5. Start with the Positives and Go in Collected: Before you even consider giving criticism, make sure that you collect your thoughts and keep your emotions in check.   As military leaders, this particularly important and often difficult to do.  If we approach people yelling and scolding, it will most likely only temporarily correct the issues.  Once you have yourself collected, begin by pointing out the things that your subordinate is doing well.  This technique oftentimes prevents the criticism from seeming like a criticism.  It also gives that person a sense of what they are doing right and allows them to reference those things in the future.

4. Be Specific: Do not be vague, as we often times are  saying things such as, “This is unacceptable” or “I am disappointed”.  We must explain exactly why their efforts or actions are sub-par.  Being vague will only put that person in the defensive and never shed light on what you truly wish to be corrected.

3. Criticize the Action, Not the Soldier: “PFC Snuffy, are you stupid? Why can’t you see all the mistakes you’ve made on this 5988E!”  This statement is never going to be received by the Soldier.  Always avoid making your criticism personal and focus only on the person’s actions instead.  Making a mistake doesn’t make you an idiot, and we all know that.  Always strive to avoid making criticisms negative and personal.

2. Have a Diplomatic Approach: When giving criticism, it is often helpful to use diplomatic terms, such as it appears to me, I believe or if I am not mistaken, etc. Using such terms often times softens your tone of criticism.  Ben Franklin, on of history’s greatest diplomats, used the same techniques with much success.  Emulating such character can only help us as leaders and professionals.

1. Make Suggestions for Improvement and FOLLOW UP!: Our goals as leaders is to improve our Soldiers.  That being said, any and all criticism must be given only with the intention of improving others.  While specifically identifying shortcomings, we must also specifically issue a suggestion for improvement.  Just knowing their mistakes doesn’t help them improve at all. We must offer our suggestions to improve.  Lastly,  always follow up.  Our criticisms won’t do any good if we don’t follow up with our suggestions.  By letting others know that you will be following up with them, they’re more likely than not going to correct their actions.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Utilizing these tips for giving criticism are only a guideline for us as Leaders.  We must always remember that not every Soldier responds to criticism the same way.  We must use discretion.  After all, some Soldiers require more of a foot up their third point of contact.  However, these techniques have been tried and true practices for years and should be considered the next time you must criticize a Soldier.

Do you have any added suggestions for giving effective criticism? Any questions? Please post them below. Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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11 thoughts on “Top 5 Tips for Giving Effective Criticism”

  1. I think #5 and #3 are the big ones here. In the service, everybody is accustomed to getting yelled at. You can reach some people this way, but not everybody.

    Pointing out positives first and controlling your emotions as a leader go a long way.

    Pointing out that a soldier is a good soldier and has plenty of potential first will also go a long way. Then critique the actions of the soldier and make sure it is clear how to avoid the problem or problems in the future.

  2. This is another great article with advice that can be used in other areas of life. For example, all of these tips are good to keep in mind when disciplining young children. Like you write in point 3, I try to always tell my daughters (the little imps that they are), that while I absolutely hate that they … tied the cat up … dug a hole to China in the middle of the back yard … knocked the lights down in their bedroom because they were jumping on the bed yet again … I do still love them.

    Then I really like to think that I make suggestions for improvement and follow up, just as calmly as your article implies I might be able to. Sometimes I think that managing a group of soldiers might be easier.

  3. This post was excellent. It can be used for everyday situations, not just in the military. I have always used the approach of starting with positives. If you tell a person about what they are doing right and then slip into the critique, it softens the blow and has them pumped up. They will want to do it better so that you will give them positive feedback. That is very important too; when the individual fixes the issue, give them positive reinforcement. Great post again!

  4. Right on! Excellent article. I think controlling your emotions is key (FOSA without a doubt), and recognizing what outcome you ultimately want first allows constructive criticism to be effectively given and better received. Mistakes are learning opportunities, so approach it that way. A training issue may be revealed, and the opportunity to correct it before it turns into a major problem is always advantageous.

  5. This is some Great information! The key is to focus on the behavior and not the person. This typically can help take the sting out of an otherwise difficult process. I think it is also important to step back and calm down before discussing the issue. The key is to approach the issue from a calm, unemotional, and professional perspective. USE FOSA as a guide: FACTS, OBJECTIVE, SOLUTION, ACTION. This takes the emotion out of the issue and allows you to focus on correcting the substandard performance.

    1. Focusing on the behavior, not the person themselves, is definitely the key to success. However, the person being critiqued needs to be mature enough to take the constructive feedback. In all my years in the military, I’ve never met ANYONE who like criticism, even if it was constructive.

  6. Exactly, Chuck. Nobody likes to be personally criticized, especially when we all know that we make mistakes. While excepting mistakes in the military is often unacceptable, we still must focus our efforts to correct the behavior effectively. I believe that this is the way to do it.

  7. Justin,

    I really like your tip about criticizing the action, not the Soldier. It’s important to let your Soldiers know that you respect them as individuals, but that you do not accept a certain behavior. That way they know you aren’t criticizing them specifically, just their behavior instead.

    Great article!


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