05 Dec 2018


Communicated in the right way, your advice and guidance can support the team in working towards its goals, while helping to build the bond of trust between you.

Words: Roberto Forzoni

Without criticism and feedback, your team members will never improve their techniques, behaviours and performance to their full potential. They need direction, timescales, detail and advice and it’s your job to deliver that in the most constructive and motivating way possible

As a leader, you will know what action needs to be taken, but your words are only half of the picture; the language you use and how and when you use it can dramatically affect the impact it makes on the recipient.


Giving criticism or negative feedback is a task few leaders enjoy, but it’s an essential part of helping your team to improve. The key is knowing how to give it in such a way that it becomes welcome and appreciated, rather than offending or upsetting the recipient

Research has shown that the risk of the recipient becoming immediately defensive and trying to justify their actions can be minimised by using the ‘sandwich approach’. This is where you open and close with some form of genuine praise or positive feedback, with a future-orientated instruction sandwiched between.

The opening positive statement gains their attention, the future-oriented instruction is heard, and the compliment helps to maintain trust and increases the likelihood that the recipient will engage in whatever behaviour you want from them in the future.

It’s important that whatever you want them to correct or improve is future orientated to avoid your employee thinking immediately about the error and then repeating it. For example, say ‘you need to try this next time’, rather than ‘you did this wrong’. It also avoids the danger of adding insult to injury with sarcasm or ridicule. The closing statement increases the chance that the instruction will be remembered.


Professor Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets can also help when considering how best to offer words of advice, praise and criticism. Dweck has researched the effect of language on personal development and growth, an extols the virtues of encouraging and developing what she terms a ‘growth mindset’ as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’.

People with growth mindsets believe they can learn, improve and develop. Nothing is black and white. The opposite is true of someone with a fixed mindset; they believe they either win or lose, and are good or bad at something. There is no in-between and so no focus on making incremental improvements.

Through our language, we can encourage either of these two types of thought processes. As an example, rather than congratulating your team members (or yourself) on being good, gifted or talented, try complimenting them on their efforts towards achieving that success - the preparation, strategic planning, long hours, resilience and never-give-up attitude. This has the effect of motivating the team to try even harder and explore more ways to improve.

Finally, remember that as the leader you set the tone, so be conscious of your manner, language and behaviour, at all times. Always, for example, speak with respect and ensure that your advice and criticism is focused on specific areas of play or behaviour, rather than being a personal attack on individuals within the group. Consider any likely objections or resistance and prepare for that, ensuring you have any helpful information or evidence to hand to back up your words.

Always choose your time and place carefully, so you can focus entirely on the matter in hand without making people feel exposed or like you’re rushing to wrap things up quickly. And show empathy, understanding and a desire to find solutions to move things forwards, rather than simply focusing on what went wrong in the past.