How To Give Criticism In The Office Without Burning Bridges

We’ve all had that colleague who leaves their dirty dishes in the sink, helps themselves to other people’s food or talks over you in meetings.

As kids our go-to response may have been to run and tell an authority figure, but the same doesn’t work when we’re adults. Not all workplace issues are big enough to warrant involvement with management. Plus, nobody wants to be seen as the dibber dobber of the office.

The good news is, you can easily raise and resolve issues with co-workers without seeming like a major jerk. It’s all about taking the right approach when you give criticism. Here, Natasha Galvin, a HR Manager of Human Resources in the banking industry shares her top tips for giving criticism in the office without burning bridges.

Don’t delay

While it can be tempting to put off having a potentially awkward and unpleasant conversation, doing so will only make matters worse.

“Leaving the conversation for later can result in feeling frustrated and this frustration being visible in your behaviour,” Natasha says. “Plus, it will make the conversation even more awkward when you do finally tell them, as they’re likely to wonder why you are providing this feedback when you’ve never had an issue before.”

Give them notice

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At the same time, it’s never a good idea to spring the conversation on them.

“Nobody likes to be ambushed, even if that’s not your intention,” Natasha says. “By saying something like ‘Hey Joe, do you mind if we grab a coffee today as there is something I would like to talk to you about following yesterday’s meeting,’ it gives a bit of warning and context without blurting out the feedback on the spot.”

Come prepared

The last thing you want is to turn up to the meeting, chicken out and say something like, “I just wanted to tell you that I really like your new haircut!”

“Have a very clear outcome in mind,” Natasha says. It may help to prepare a few bullet points on the key messages you want to get across and the outcome you want to achieve.”

You’re also going to want to be as specific as you can.

“Don’t just go in and say ‘you’ve been really grumpy lately and it makes me feel bad,’ — you’re going to need to provide specific examples,” Natasha says.

Don’t fluff around

When you actually catch up with your colleague, be mindful of not fluffing around at the start of the conversation, as this tends to happen when we get nervous.

Remember that the person you’re talking to is a human being with their own life and complex emotions.

“If you do find yourself fluffing around, stop, take a breath and start with ‘the reason I wanted to catch up with you today is xyz,’ Natasha says. “Once you start down that road, you can’t go back!”

Don’t know where to start? Try using these key phrases: “I value our working relationship and it’s because of this that I want to talk to you today about xyz behaviour. I know it wasn’t your intent, but when you did xyz it made me feel abc.” 

Be human

While it’s important to be direct, you also need to remember that the person you’re talking to is a human being with their own life and complex emotions. Also keep in mind that the conversation is difficult for both people — so tread gently.

“They may have something going on in their personal life that is changing their behaviour at work,” Natasha points out. “If their behaviour has changed recently, it could be worth having a wellbeing conversation, such as: ‘Lately I’ve noticed a change in you/your behaviour, is everything okay?’”

Offer assistance

Don’t forget, it’s called constructive criticism for a reason. If you are giving feedback, be prepared to offer to assist the person in developing or correcting their behaviour — even if you’re not their manager.

“No, you’re not responsible for their behaviour, but they may need some guidance or coaching which you might be able to offer, or you could suggest where to go to get this assistance,” Natasha says. “Most large companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – a free and confidential service that offers counselling services for a wide range of both personal and work related reasons.”

 Try the “shit sandwich” approach

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If all else fails, you can always take the “shit sandwich” approach. This a method of delivering criticism or feedback in a way that makes it more palatable. Yes, it’s technically sugar-coating, but sometimes it’s necessary, both to give criticism and avoid burning bridges. Here’s how it goes:

  1. A slice of positive feedback
  2. A slice of constructive feedback
  3. A slice of positive feedback

For example, “Hey Joe, I think it’s fantastic that you have so many great ideas during our meetings. I think if we could all speak just one person at a time, it’ll ensure your ideas are getting the recognition they deserve.”

Emma Norris is a Sydney-based freelance writer and the owner of copywriting business, and lifestyle blog, When she’s not playing with words, she’s either doing pushups or stuffing her face with pizza. You can follow her on Instagram @emmajanenorris.