I am asked to give feedback for a colleague for which unfortunately I have many negative aspects to point out. The issue is that I don't want to make them too personal.
Example: I find him very, yes very but very difficult to work with due to his behavior. Although I can mention concrete examples proving this, I feel that stating "Very difficult to work with" is too insulting.
How can we be critical of a colleague without being rude? I want to help him improve with my feedback and not just "blow off steam"

  • 2
    Quantify everything. When you do "A" the consequence is "B". Point out specifics and take out all emotion. Mar 28, 2016 at 16:32
  • 1
    @RichardU, there must be an emotional component to it. At the very least in the form of a recognition that what you're saying may be hard to swallow. There's a really good podcast about this topic here: manager-tools.com/2005/07/giving-effective-feedback
    – teego1967
    Mar 28, 2016 at 17:03
  • @teego1967 Perhaps I should clarify. Emotion should not be in the analysis. When presented, you can keep the words soft, but the data should be hard. Mar 28, 2016 at 18:33
  • @ColleenV That doesn't work when you're specifically asked to provide feedback about that person's work, as the OP states.
    – Cronax
    Mar 29, 2016 at 6:57
  • Based on one of your responses below, I'm curious what you mean by "difficult to work with"? Do you mean argumentative, or do you mean unprepared? Are you being asked to criticize behavior that impacts their performance, or are you being asked to critique behavior that makes you feel bad? There's an important difference between the two.
    – user70848
    Mar 29, 2016 at 22:32

7 Answers 7


The trouble with "very difficult to work with" isn't that it's insulting - it's that it gives no way for the recipient of that information to improve. If you really want to help this person improve, you need to be saying what it is about this person that makes them so difficult to work with, why this makes your work harder, and how they need to change to improve things. For example:

Joe Tardy is frequently five to ten minutes late at the start of his shift. This means that the rest of the team has to cover his workload and has led to increased stress on the team. It would be really good if he could work on getting in 15 minutes earlier so we wouldn't have to deal with this.

If there are a multitude of reasons you find this person difficult to work with, try and distill it down to the top three or so which have the most significant effect on your work - that way management / the recipient can know what it's going to make a difference to work on, rather than fixing the little problems when the big ones carry on.

  • 7
    This is VERY important. You should give key tasks they can approve on. General comments are not helpful. Key tasks, with quantifiable measurements are the goal. Also don't forget to mention good points as well. Your late to work, you need to address that, but once you get here I really like how focused you are. Is much better then "It's hard to work with you"
    – coteyr
    Mar 28, 2016 at 18:16
  • The key is to state facts, not opinions. "Bob is a jerk" isn't helpful. "Bob often interrupts during meetings, and belittles my work" gives specifics. Also, opinions can be argued, but facts cannot. Mar 29, 2016 at 15:59

The key thing to remember here is that you're criticizing the act not the actor.

Yeah, Joe might do things that make him hard to work with, but you should focus on what Joe does and how that impacts you, not Joe himself. Because it's not Joe that's the problem, right? If Bob or Amy did those things, the behaviors would still be a problem. So focus on the behavior. Point out how it's harming their ability to get their job done, and maybe offer some ideas about how to better handle things.

  • 8
    Interesting answer. The others said to point out how the behavior affects me. You point out how it affects them
    – smith
    Mar 28, 2016 at 20:00

Before you even begin, take a minute to reflect on your own failings as a human being. Understand you're imperfect. Yet despite your own problems (many of which may cause deep distress for others) you deserve decency and human respect. Keep this in mind as you deliver feedback, and communicate you're own weaknesses readily to help the other party understand everyone has issues to work on.

Then start out with positive feedback. Focus on the things you're grateful about in the other person. Demonstrate your respect and deference for the things they're good at. I've never met a human being I can't find something to be impressed by.

Next, try to focus your criticism on work artifacts, not the individual. And be very specific and actionable. And again with humility: "That email you sent to the client last week appeared to me to not communicate the issue effectively. I may not understand the issue." Then after speaking you might suggest some courses of action "Perhaps it would help you to have someone proofread your writing. Or coach you?"

When you need to be a little more personal, focus on specifics and avoid generalizations that burn bridges. Say "when you write emails, you sometimes don't take the time to proofread." Or "when you interview people, it seems to me that you're not paying attention to what they're saying." Don't say "you're absent minded." Definitely don't say "you're an absent minded dolt that loves hearing the sound of his own voice."

If you feel this person has wronged you, don't hide from it. Instead, call it out explicitly. However, use "I" language not accusatory "you" language. "With that email to the client, I felt put off because often I must call them to clarify the situation." This makes your emotions the focus, not the other person's actions. Relationships are a two-way street. Both their action and your emotional response could be part of the problem. Again, intersperse humility -- "perhaps there's no way to actually communicate this issue via email, and I would do no better. Maybe we could collaborate to find ways to communicate with clients better."

Finally, never close doors only open them. If you tell someone they suck and they'll never get better, that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell people they have tremendous potential and you want to help them, you open doors for their excellence and you grow your relationship with them.

  • 5
    A tenet of behavioral theory is the emotional state the person receives from the 2nd thing you do will color what you did right before it (Conditioned Emotional Response). So if you follow this advice a lot with the same person, any time you compliment them, they'll immediately think "oh no, here he comes again with criticism." Whereas if you reverse it, they are likely to feel more positive about the criticism. This is probably why the "compliment sandwich" is so popular. The 1st set of compliments gets them listening, then the criticism, then the warm fuzzies bleeding into the criticism. Mar 28, 2016 at 20:28

Whether you are giving positive feedback, or negative feedback, nobody likes to be judged unfairly. (The unfair part is always from the perspective of the receiver of the feedback). I have been given positive and negative feedback in the past, and it usually doesn't feel right.

In your case, "very difficult to work with" is a judgement and will feel unjust when you deliver it. And that feeling of unjustness will breed resentment.

Before you give the feedback, you need to think about specific interactions with that person, and specifically how you felt about each one. Compile a list, and sanitize it. Then approach the person for the feedback.

So what is a useful way to deliver feedback without delivering a judgement?

  1. Describe your interaction.
  2. Describe how you felt about the interaction.
  3. Invite his comments.

When you do it that way, it's all about what you observed dealing with him, and how you felt about it. However, if he's listening, he can make the inferences and judge himself. Most people aren't offended when they judge themselves.


  1. (Describe situation) - Hi Joe. Our team shift starts at 9:00, and most people are ready to work at 9:00 sharp. Very often, we have a lot of work in the first half hour. When you often show up 15 minutes late, the rest of the team has to cover for the 15 minutes of work you missed.
  2. (Describe feeling) - When the team is short-staffed, they feel tense and frustrated because work is piling up and rushed. Many also feel it is unfair that not everybody on the team contributes to the morning rush.
  3. Do you have any thoughts on this?

At this point, the coworker understands that his plainly described behaviour is followed by bad feelings among his team mates. He can perhaps even empathize with them. At this point, he will likely judge himself (perhaps even as "difficult to work with") and might offer suggestions to mitigate the situation. Either way, this becomes an opportunity to jointly agree on steps so that the situation can be corrected.

On the flip side, here is an example of bad positive feedback:

  1. Many tried, but you fixed it! That was excellent hard work fixing that software bug!

Why is it not good positive feedback? Because you judged the feedback receiver. He may have fixed that bug inadvertently as a part of writing other code. Or he may have only partially fixed the bug, but nobody knows. You don't know. Even if the feedback was positive, the judgement likely still feels unfair to the receiver.

You can correct the feedback delivery changing the wording:

  1. (Describe what you saw) - I noticed that you were concentrating deeply trying to fix that software bug. Others have tried without success, but you fixed it pretty quickly.
  2. (Describe how you felt) - I appreciate your diligent concentration, I was pleasantly surprised that you fixed it so quickly, and I am relieved and glad that the system works better with the bug fixed.

No matter what the feedback receiver knows about the bug, your description of what you saw and how you felt cannot be disputed. At that point, the receiver can take your description and feelings and judge himself.


Worry less about people's feelings (if they're adults) and more about conveying a message.

It's better to be straight up with someone (there may be some temporary discomfort), than to beat around the bush with vague stuff so they have to figure it out themselves. Most people can take a sincere 'heads up' without much effort.

But only do it if it's important. Don't come up with a long list of minor flaws and browbeat them with it. But there's nothing wrong with pointing out major ones.

"Mate, you need to sort out your priorities. I can't wait for XXXX forever. It's frustrating as heck and it's ongoing."

  • 1
    I agree with this. If he cannot take constructive criticism as an adult then that gives you another thing you have to bring up anyways as part of the feedback discussion. It should not be your job to cater to every individuals emotional issues. Mar 28, 2016 at 17:10
  • Of course, it's very important to keep the criticism constructive. If the feedback is too subjective or emotionally charged, a person will feel attacked--the natural response, to which, is fight or flight. Even starting a sentence off with "of course," which I did for illustrative purposes, can put people on the defensive, because it implies something the reader should have known, or something that is unquestionably correct; things are rarely so clear. Mar 28, 2016 at 23:11
  • Some people can get upset over nothing. To me, that is their problem, not mine.
    – Kilisi
    Mar 28, 2016 at 23:17

Point out the how their actions hurt the company and hinders your productivity. I will give an example "We have a major audit coming up". "I appreciate the care and precision of your work. However, we as a team need to prioritize the order of our work so we don't get an unfavorable finding. A finding will cost us approximately X hours to remediate."

Do not do a general rant about his behavior that is not actionable. Say very explicitly what exact behaviors is making you uncomfortable and why. I understand you not wanting to make this personal, but if another colleague is impairing my ability to work, you bet I will be clear to ensure 0 misunderstanding.

In this way, he can see the bigger consequence of his actions.


Assume that anything you write will be traceable back to you because despite best efforts to hide the source, the person receiving the criticism will almost surely figure out where specific comments came from. They will hold it against you, even if you had good intentions with pointing out what needs to be "worked on".

Thus, if you are "friendly" with the colleague then it is best to not mention anything negative in the review. If you aren't all that impressed with their work but want to maintain your "friendly" situation then just don't write a glowing review. No need for any negatives.

If you really want to help the person then give suggestions for how the person can improve face to face, not through formal channels. Either way, your comments will trace back to you and writing negative comments is going to end up in a face to face anyways. Your wanting to be "helpful" will come across as being far more sincere if you handle the situation face to face instead of back dooring through the review process.

  • I never said that my feedback will not be disclosed
    – smith
    Mar 29, 2016 at 18:36
  • I never said that your feedback would not be disclosed either. I was simply pointing out that if you "truly" want your feedback to be helpful then peer reviews won't accomplish that goal. If you want to blow off steam then don't hide behind the guise of "being helpful" because you aren't if you put it in the formal review process. So don't pretend like your negative review won't be taken personally and don't pretend like you are really trying to be helpful to the person you are reviewing, because you aren't.
    – Dunk
    Mar 29, 2016 at 19:02

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