Is your workplace criticism backfiring?

Constructive feedback should leave team members feeling empowered and motivated.

With many finance professionals working remotely either full or part time, leaders are having to re-examine their traditional ways of communicating with teams. One of the most vital aspects of communication is the ability to deliver timely and constructive criticism in a way that leaves finance team members feeling motivated, supported, and empowered, explained Michaela Powell-Rees, ACMA, CGMA, and managing director at Rera Partners, a corporate finance firm based in Botswana.

This can be a delicate balancing act for management, particularly with far less day-to-day oversight and in-person contact with team members. If criticism is delivered callously or unclearly, it can leave team members feeling undermined and isolated.

"Effective criticism is vital to bring about positive change and to add measurable value not only within the finance team but across the organisation," she said. "A strong finance team is proactive and one in which the current systems and status quo are continuously critiqued."

Funmi Adesida, FCMA, CGMA, and principal partner at ADF Business Solutions, a financial services firm based in Nigeria, explained that when delivering criticism, leaders should always view it as an opportunity to equip team members with new knowledge and skills. "Workplace criticism should be approached as a valuable coaching exercise, and leaders must address any issues as soon as they have been identified rather than waiting for scheduled performance appraisals," she said.

FM magazine spoke to Powell-Rees and Adesida to explore how finance leaders can improve the quality and delivery of constructive criticism and ultimately boost team performance.

Show gratitude.

When delivering criticism, start with recognition of the positive aspects of a team member's work, advised Powell-Rees. If employees feel valued, they are likely to listen more openly to constructive criticism and want to improve.

"I once had a manager who used to mark up deliverables in red pen and used very abrupt language, which felt offensive and disrespectful," Powell-Rees recalled. "I used that experience to know what not to do with my own team. … It is often not the criticism but how it is delivered that is most important." As a rule, praise in public and critique in private because this fosters a more psychologically safe environment for the team, she added.

Investigate the issue.

According to Adesida, finance leaders often do not take the time to fully understand and explore why mistakes are being made. For instance, finance team members might be receiving incorrect information from another department, which then feeds errors into their own work. Unless leaders actively look into the issues with an open and inquiring mind, there is a risk that criticism can be misdirected and fail to address the root problem.

"As a leader, it is important to pause and take a step back, if the reasons are not immediately evident, and do the proper investigations into the issue," she explained. "This may involve asking technical questions of team members to better understand their actions or speaking to other departments. Without this deeper probing, it is likely that the same mistakes will keep on occurring."

Identify personal bias.

Leaders are often very accustomed to their own processes and can make the error of simply overlooking that an individual's approach is different but still effective. "Too often, finance leaders criticise based on their personal preference of how things 'should' be done, instead of recognising, for instance, that junior professionals are introducing new ways and ideas into the profession," Powell-Rees said.

In order to avoid judgements being clouded by bias, she recommended that leaders ask themselves a series of key questions when reviewing a deliverable: Has the objective of the deliverable been met? Is the deliverable to the quality expected? Is my criticism founded upon personal preference, or is there an actual issue that needs to be resolved?

"This process helps me to temper and balance my criticism," she added.

Keep emotions out of it.

Adesida advised leaders to be direct and to avoid showing any emotion, particularly exasperation or annoyance. If leaders get sidetracked by these emotions, it is more likely that team members will take the criticism personally and be less willing to speak about and address challenges going forward, she cautioned.

"Make sure that you do not talk around the issue, and consistently use the same tone when delivering criticism," she added. "Constructive criticism also requires that you explain the implications of the error, and do not sugar-coat the issue and its wider impact in any way."

If teams are working remotely, Adesida cautioned against using email or written communication to deliver feedback, because this often leads to misinterpretation.

"If you cannot be in person, then use a video call to share screens and visually demonstrate where mistakes were made," she said. "Visual cues are often far more powerful, and many employees learn more effectively when issues are made visual and tangible."

Finally, always remember the human element, urged Powell-Rees, and tailor your approach according to your understanding of each team member.

"A blanket approach will not work," she said. "Always keep the personal element."

— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at