Healthy Workforce

Constructive Criticism

How to offer negative feedback in a helpful way

Male nurse in orange scrubs bites nails considering the stress of giving negative feedback.

Damon is clinically excellent and well-liked by his colleagues. However, he has a weakness: He can be too passive and won’t speak up even if a colleague makes a mistake. Damon doesn’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, so he’ll just pick up the slack or fix an issue himself without saying anything. Damon was recently asked to be a preceptor. However, to be successful in this role, he will be required not only to stand up for himself, but also to give negative feedback at times. How can he learn this important skill?

Standing in judgment of someone else can be so uncomfortable that even highly experienced professionals avoid it like the plague. We shy away from delivering negative feedback because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings and we’re afraid of how they will react.

Instead, we do what’s comfortable: We don’t say anything. Worse, we sometimes turn passive-aggressive. Instead of confronting the offenders, we gossip or complain about them behind their backs.

When we are unable to effectively give (and receive) constructive criticism, we not only limit our personal growth, but we reduce the overall strength of the team.

The truth is, we all need to know where we stand, even if the guidance is painful. According to research conducted by Officevibe, a team management company:

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  • 82% of employees appreciate positive and negative feedback.
  • 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least weekly.
  • 40% of employees are disengaged when they get little to no feedback.

Leading the Way

If you’re in a leadership role, evaluating the performance of your reports is part of the job. In my experience, staffers are more likely to accept critiques from a manager or leader if: ✓ They trust that your intent is to help them. ✓ The feedback is specific. ✓ The feedback is frequent and ongoing, not just once a year.

Delivering Constructive Criticism

When I was an educator working in a large hospital, I was responsible for equipping preceptors with the skills and tools they needed to effectively onboard new nurses. We spent a lot of time talking about how to offer criticism without it coming across as nitpicky or harsh or causing the orientee to get defensive.

Set the stage by saying something like this: “I want to help you become a successful nurse — the kind of nurse I want to work with at 2 a.m. in a crisis situation, and the type of nurse I’d want caring for my family. For me to help you succeed here, I will need to continuously evaluate your behavior. That means I’m going to tell you the good, the bad, and, if I have to, the ugly. And I need you to be open to it.”

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A statement like this makes crystal clear that:

  1. Your intent is for them to succeed.
  2. Your feedback will be specific.
  3. It will be delivered regularly.

Then, every day you work together, sometime towards the end of the shift, tell them: “Here is one thing you did really well today, and here is one area that I want you to work on.” Be specific! Here are two examples:

Something they did really well: “When the central monitor showed that Mr. Rossi had a drop in oxygen saturation, you immediately checked him, checked the probe, listened to his lungs, and checked his respiratory rate. You fully assessed him before you called the physician. That’s excellent.”

Something they need to work on: “I’d like you to improve the way you give report. There were a few things you missed and then had to go back to add, which was a bit disorganized. This is something we can work on during our next shift. I have a few suggestions that will help.”

After a while, the people you manage may come to welcome constructive criticism, recognizing that it’s valuable information that helps them to improve their skills, grow professionally, and thrive. Earlier in my career, I had an experience where a friend told me she didn’t like something I had done. At first, I was taken aback, but then I saw that she was right, and I corrected the situation. I came to see that honest feedback as a gift.

RENEE THOMPSON, RN, DNP, CMSRN, is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute (

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