Feedback: Taking the Criticism out of Constructive Criticism

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

It’s not a proper feedback if it’s given to flatter and/or belittle someone. True feedback should be given to empower someone [sic] perform better. — Assegid Habtewold

I often tell the parents with whom I work – and my students, that you have to be as “cool as a winter’s day” when delivering consequences.  You can’t let them “see you sweat!”  If you do, you’ve just lost control and negotiations are likely to begin.  Straightforward approaches in delivering consequences are important and straightforward approaches when delivering feedback are vital.

We have all heard of the “sandwich approach” to feedback.  Proponents of this approach believe that beginning with praise and ending with praise softens the blow of criticism.  But, does it?  Are we not just conditioning those who work under our supervision to associate a praise statement with an inevitable critical remark?  You can almost see the flinch that occurs when you say, “Yes, Jim, you are really good at designing attending programs!”  The silent “but” is deafening.

Actionable feedback is vital to the improvement of an individual’s job performance and, by extension, the success of the business – whether it be the proper implementation of a behavior intervention plan (BIP) – the pace of assembly in an assembly line – or the delivery of an innovative advertising campaign proposal to a board of directors.  Improved performance depends on feedback.  What are the characteristics of actionable feedback?  C – O – S – T – S.

C – Consistent

O – Ongoing

S – Specific

T – Timely

S – Sincere

Let’s take a closer look!

Consistent feedback requires that those in supervisory roles identify the long-term goal and provide feedback that will lead the learner in a step-by-step process towards achievement (Wiggins, 2012). Each opportunity for feedback must provide information that will allow the learner to reach that goal by acting upon the information received (Wiggins, 2012).

Ongoing feedback must be frequent and provide necessary opportunities to improve performance (Wiggins, 2012).

Specific feedback requires that you describe the error or deficit in the performance; explain why the current performance is a problem, i.e., the effect of not changing the way one is currently performing; and detail what needs to be changed to “alleviate the problem” (Economy, 2014, para. 3).  The supervisor must describe exactly what the desired performance “looks like.”  It may even help to play a recording of the performance in order to analyze it together, much like coaches do with their athletes (Wiggins, 2012).

Timely feedback can be tricky unless you schedule specific times to conduct direct observation of the one whose performance you wish to assess.  If you can do that, then providing feedback during the observation or immediately after will prevent an error from being repeated and will provide the individual, in the moment, with specific instruction in how to improve the performance (Wiggins, 2012).  Coupling Timely feedback with Ongoing feedback will allow the learner the opportunity, while receiving your instruction, to improve performance in the moment – basically, rehearsing and receiving feedback “in action.”

Sincere feedback requires that the supervisor approach the provision of feedback as a conversation (Schwarz, 2013).  Clearly describing the expectations, while conveying concern, not only for the business but for the learner’s success as well, communicates that your motivation is to help the learner improve and reach his/her goals (Schwarz, 2013).  This, in turn, allows trust to grow.  With trust, comes a desire to meet expectations – not to avoid getting fired, but to try to live up to someone’s belief in us.

The sandwich method of providing constructive criticism calls into question the sincerity of the praise used to cushion the criticism and has the potential to break down the learner’s trust in the supervisor (Schwarz, 2013).  However, this doesn’t mean that we should abandon praise altogether (Schwarz, 2013).  Praise should be provided much like constructive criticism – but separate from it.  Praise must be specific and informative as to how the learner’s action/performance has “positively impacted” the company, and it should “end with a personalized ‘thank you’” (Fessler, 2017, para. 10).  Through the utilization of C-O-S-T, and the presentation of specific praise, management can foster a healthy work environment and encourage the best performance in employees.

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership. — Harvey S. Firestone

Do you use constructive criticism in your workplace?  Share with us your tips in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Economy, P. (2014, October 6). 3 essentials for giving the gift of constructive criticism: Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Give it early and often.  Retrieved from

Fessler, L. (2017, June 22). Good managers give constructive criticism – But truly masterful leaders offer constructive praise. Retrieved from

Schwarz, R. (2013, April 19).  The “sandwich approach” undermines your feedback.  Retrieved from

Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedback.  Retrieved from


Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University.  Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.

Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University.  Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at [email protected].

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