Criticism is a necessary part of life. You'll endure criticism for the majority of your young life, from corrections to your penmanship to comments about your performance in a professional setting. Inevitably, many of these pieces of criticism will be purely constructive, helping you figure out what you're doing wrong and putting you on a faster path to improvement. But some of these pieces will cut you deeply, serving as insults as heavily as they serve as criticism.
When it's your turn to give criticism, you want to be sure your comments fit the former description. Remaining polite and constructive will help those under you feel better about their work and themselves, and will make a better impression on those above you.
So how do you give criticism honestly without sounding like a jerk?
1. Be Straightforward
You aren't doing anybody any favors by skirting around the subject. Trying to "hide" your criticism with a subtle hint, or worse, in the form of a passive aggressive comment, will only serve to confuse or insult the subject of your criticism. Instead, don't be afraid to come out with what you really mean. For example, if a coworker is underdressed for a networking event you're both attending, don't try to be clever and indirect with something like, "most people like to look professional when they come to these." Just come out and say, "I think you're underdressed for this event," though you'll probably want to frame it with a few of these other tips.
2. Be Specific
General criticism almost always sounds like a put down. Something like "you aren't doing that right" is non-specific, and therefore can be applied to every aspect of the task. For example, if a person is working on a complex spreadsheet and you say something like, "you've done it all wrong," the person will feel terrible about it. Not only have you completely destroyed the person's work, you haven't given any indication of something specific that's the root cause of the problem. Instead, try to be as specific as possible. Drill down to the specific elements that are causing the problem.
3. Focus on the Work, Not the Person
This should be an obvious strategy, but you'd be surprised how many people neglect it. Criticizing a person directly will always make him/her feel bad, and will do nothing to incite or inspire a positive change. For example, let's say your account manager is struggling with maintaining client relationships because he doesn't come off as friendly in conversation. Telling him he's not a very friendly person, even if you do so politely, serves as an insult and doesn't give the situation chance for improvement. Telling him his word choices and body language make him seem unfriendly diverts the criticism to his actions, rather than himself, and makes the situation more positive and actionable.
4. Don't Tell Someone They're Wrong
There are some cases where there's a right way and a wrong way to do things, but for the most part, this isn't exactly true. For example, even if one of your workers approaches a problem in a way that violates company policies and procedures, there might be some value in doing it that way. Even if a person is in the rare position of being completely wrong, telling them they're wrong escalates the criticism to a confrontation, and makes your criticism wholly debatable. Instead of declaring a person's actions "wrong," instead suggest that they could be made better in some way.
5. Find Something to Compliment
Occasionally you'll hear advice to serve criticism in a "compliment sandwich," by saying something nice, giving the criticism, and then closing with something else nice. This isn't necessary, but including compliments can help soften the blow of criticism and make it obvious that you're there to help. For example, if your new intern keeps forgetting to include shipping addresses on his purchase orders, you can mention how good he is at remembering all the other information. You can even go outside the task and mention how good they are at some other task or project.
6. Make Suggestions, Not Orders
If you're in a position of authority, it can be tempting to phrase your criticism as an order, like "you need to start doing this another way." Doing so demonstrates your authority and practically forces the person to change. In extreme situations, this is a good thing, but if your relationship is on relatively good terms, it's better to start with a softer approach. Make a suggestion rather than giving a command with something like "you could be more productive if you did this another way," or "I think you'll find another way is better."
7. Have a Conversation
Finally, don't make your criticism a one-sided blow. Make it an invitation to a conversation. Listen to what your subject has to say on the matter, and if there's a specific reason why he/she isn't meeting expectations. Debate the issue, if warranted, and make the other person feel like his/her opinions and feelings are valid. Doing so can make any criticism easier to take.
You'll be giving and receiving criticism for the bulk of your career. If you don't find yourself in either situation, you've likely hit a dead end. Understanding how to give criticism constructively with these strategies and approaches will help you make a better impression, develop a stronger reputation, and help more people find their way to success.