In leadership, we are the last line of defense before work goes out into the world. Oftentimes, we don’t see the work cross our desks before it goes out, but we do see our colleagues and coworkers alongside us. There will be times when you see things that you know need fixing—a method that is not as efficient as it ought to be, something that habitually slips through the cracks, or a common thread of concern that bears addressing.
When you’re outside of an employee review and an issue can’t wait, offering unsolicited advice, critique, and criticism can be a minefield to navigate.
At the same time, it’s often necessary to offer advice and correction when it hasn’t been asked for in order to optimize employee performance. Fixing mistakes and systems in the moment rather than waiting for a formal performance review or waiting for it to impact your bottom line means you end up saving yourself losses later.
Here are my top tips to offering unsolicited advice the right way—in a way that encourages and inspires rather than offends.
How to Offer Correction and Advice Nobody Asked For in 4 Steps
1) Be generous, team-oriented, and solution-driven.
When it comes to correction, you have to approach it with a plan and with the right attitude. If you go in telling a person everything they’ve done wrong, offering no solutions, you’re going to breed resentment and that person is likely not going to listen to a word you’ve said.
Instead, start with generosity. Assume the best in your coworkers and approach the situation as a team. Use language like “we” and “us,” when talking about solutions. And that’s key—solutions. When you’re pointing out an error or mistakes, a solution must be at the ready. You can say, “Why don’t we look at this together?” or “Why don’t we look at it and solve this as a team?”
This sort of language unites, rather than divides in what could be a contentious situation. You want the person you are correcting to know that you are on their team and trying to help. It moves past the embarrassment of the mistake and moves forward to the solution.
2) Approach the issue one-on-one.
This point is so crucial. When you are offering advice or critique, you must do so in private. To approach someone who has made mistakes publicly can be perceived as a call-out or public humiliation. No one likes to be made to feel inferior. You will already have to deal with the possibility that they will feel this way being approached one-on-one.
To be confronted with others present will make those defensive walls go up—they will immediately work to protect their reputation rather than listen to your critique, even if you have good intentions. It will look like you are singling them out to make an example of them.
Rather, make your approach a private one. This will ensure that your critique is not hindered by distraction, defensiveness, or self-conscious feelings due to onlookers.
3) Own your mistakes: past, present, and future.
As a leader, it is important to be open and honest about the mistakes that you yourself have made. While this may seem counterintuitive in earning respect from your coworkers, you will find that, in showing your growth and acknowledging your faults and ability to fail, you humanize yourself. In being honest about your own shortcomings and being open to correction yourself, this creates an environment where others are more receptive to being corrected.
There will not be a feeling that you are the high-and-mighty leader who tells everyone what to do because he thinks he’s better than everyone else, but rather, a leader who carries his own mistakes, who is growing and improving and wants to push others to do the same. If you begin with establishing an environment that is open, genuine, and encouraging, that will carry through in times of correction.
4) Frame correction with positivity.
Lastly, it’s important to frame correction with positivity. The application of positivity spans several areas of correction. First, you should open up the conversation with positive feedback. Let the person know something about them, their work, or what they have done that you do appreciate. This helps let the person know that you see the whole of their work, not just what you perceive as their wrongdoings. It helps them know that you see clearly—preventing it from coming off as a personal slight when you do move into correction.
Furthermore, continue to be positive at the end of your dialogue. Let your colleague know that whatever the problem is is fixable and that you will work with them. Tell them they are appreciated. Remember, mistakes or not, your colleagues have feelings. It’s easy to forget that when your focus is on getting things done and done well.
Do you have a standout experience in receiving criticism during your career? Share what made it memorable in the comments.