A Therapist-Turned-Agency-Owner’s Guide to Giving Constructive Criticism

Therapist's Guide to Constructive Criticism - Hero Image


Constructive criticism requires leaders to give helpful feedback to improve someone's work or behavior. It's important for making marketing agency teams better and growing as an agency leader. This therapist-turned-agency-owner's guide offers practical tips for other agency owners on how to give feedback that encourages improvement with real-life examples.

As the owner of two businesses–an SEO marketing agency that primarily serves therapy practices, and a multi-site private counseling practice–I often say that the hardest part of my job is managing people. 

The truth is, I care about every single one of my employees. That caring, over-empathizing part of me is why I went into the field of social work many years ago when I first chose my career path before I ever considered business ownership or marketing. 

While it’s a benefit to my therapy clients, in many ways, this caring part of my nature could be my downfall in business. Delivering less-than-positive feedback isn’t fun, and it’s tempting to resist it entirely, especially if you’re an empathetic person who cares deeply about the feelings of those around you.

But to avoid the hard conversations is to miss a massive opportunity to improve the proficiency of your team, and to strengthen your own skills as a leader. 

Giving feedback, especially when it's not positive, is a delicate and challenging task. As an agency owner, it's important to provide your employees with constructive criticism in a way that is both effective and respectful. Today I’m sharing some tips to help you do just that.

Dos and Don'ts of Giving Agency Employees Constructive Criticism

It's a situation that every employer faces at some point: balancing the need to correct mistakes and improve performance with the desire to support and nurture the growth of your team.... and perhaps fearing that criticism will lead to your team quitting. 

If delivered effectively, criticism is an opportunity for growth. So, let's get down to business and take a look at some of the Dos and Don'ts of delivering feedback.

What To Do When Giving Constructive Criticism

1) DO Schedule a Private Meeting

When you want to give feedback, find a time and place that's peaceful and private. It’s best to share feedback in a face-to-face conversation rather than through email. This not only allows for open and honest communication but also shows that you value the individual’s time and are willing to have a conversation.

Providing feedback in a 1:1 setting reduces the risk of shame and embarrassment that often accompanies public criticism (a topic we’ll discuss in further detail below). 

If an employee feels embarrassed, they won't hear what you're saying. They won't learn. And their behavior won't change.

So, if you want your feedback to be well received and incorporated into their future work habits, it's worth the extra time to give that feedback 1:1.

2) DO Start With Praise

Begin the conversation with the positive aspects of the employee’s performance. Show that you appreciate their hard work and acknowledge their strengths. This will help build trust and make them more receptive to the feedback.

Starting with praise sets a positive tone for the conversation. It shows that you are not just focused on pointing out the employee’s mistakes, but also recognizing their contributions and efforts. 

Now, it's important to note here that the praise needs to be authentic. If you're just blowing smoke, they're going to notice. So, try to think of something you've truly noticed that they're doing well. 

If they're not doing ANYTHING well these days, what did they do well before now? Start with that and come from a place of concern and curiosity about what has changed.

3) DO Get Specific

Focus on specific incidents rather than behaviors. Explain what the employee did, how it impacted the workflow, and how it can be fixed. This will help the employee understand their mistakes and provide them with actionable steps for improvement.

Being specific shows that you have been paying attention to their work and are invested in helping them improve.

It also avoids generalizations, which can often come across as vague or unhelpful. 

Example: If you mention to a copywriter, “Your headlines need some work,” they will know that they need to rewrite their headlines. However, they may not comprehend why they need to be rewritten or what the problem is. Without specific direction, their second version may not be much better than the first, which will leave you both feeling frustrated. 

However, if you let them know, “Adding punchy words and slimming down the word count of your headlines will help the article rank better,” they’ll more clearly understand what you are looking for and WHY you are looking for that change. As a result, they are much more likely to deliver a revised product that meets your expectations.

4) DO Lead With Empathy

Your employees are human beings. And they want to know that you see them that way. So, it's important to acknowledge their feelings. Hear them out and understand their viewpoint. What circumstances led to their underperformance? What took place from their perspective?

Example: Let’s say your graphic designer’s work has been subpar on a particular account. When you speak with them, you discover that they’ve been left on their own to decipher a difficult client’s confusing feedback, without guidance from peers or their manager. Having empathy for the tough spot they’re in will go a long way in producing a solution.

Foster a supportive environment and make it clear that you have their best interests at heart. This diffuses any potential defensiveness and makes the conversation more collaborative.

5) DO Assume the Best

When an employee is under-performing or doing something wrong (especially something that might impact your agency’s bottom line), it’s easy to assume the worst. However, assuming the worst will rarely help you get better performance out of that employee. Instead, assuming that they WANT to do well and just need some extra support tends to get better results.

Example: Let’s say you have an employee who designs social media campaigns for clients. You’ve received complaints from clients that the campaigns feel generic and you’ve noticed that several accounts look like they’re essentially getting the same social media designs with different brand colors and pictures. 

You could assume that the designer is lazy or untalented. OR you could question whether they’ve been given enough information about each client account, or enough time to complete the projects to the best of their abilities.

When you assume the best, you: 

  • Approach the employee and state what you observe in a factual, non-judgmental way as an observation. 

  • Take a problem-solving approach by expressing that you believe the employee wants to provide excellent, personalized social media posts. 

  • Invite that employee to share with you what might be standing in their way

  • Listen to them and see if together you can identify an area for additional training, or a process tweak to empower them to do better.

Most employees want to do good work. There will always be a few who just show up for the paycheck, but the majority of people want to do work that feels fulfilling to them.

If you’re giving employees feedback with the intention of helping them grow, they’ll naturally feel more engaged and motivated to do their best. 

6) DO Communicate Clearly

Danica, our Chief Operating Officer at Simplified SEO Consulting, often says, "Clear is Kind," and I couldn't agree more. If you aren't really clear with your employees about your expectations, how can they meet them? If you aren't very direct about what they've done wrong, how can they avoid making the same mistake?

If I'm honest, I think this is something a lot of people struggle with. I've often read emails where people told me, "I was really direct," but even I was left scratching my head wondering what they were really saying. 

So, if you suspect you may struggle with this piece, try talking through your communication plan with a colleague. Tell them how you're going to describe the problem to the employee ahead of time, and ask them if you're being clear enough.

7) DO Expect Pushback

Nobody likes to be given negative feedback. If your employee doesn't immediately accept your feedback with grace, know it's a normal human reaction to be a little defensive. 

Negative feedback is challenging to receive, and it's essential to anticipate that your employees may not always take it well. This expectation is particularly relevant in the marketing agency setting, where creativity and innovation are highly prized. 

Example: Imagine you've asked a talented content writer on your marketing team to revise a blog post for a client's website. After reviewing the revised draft, you notice that some key SEO elements are missing, which could impact the post's search engine ranking. When you mention this concern, your writer might respond with initial resistance, explaining their creative approach and how they thought it would engage the audience better.

Patience is your ally. Stay calm and professional, emphasizing that your intention is to help them improve and achieve even better results.

Shift the conversation from emotions to facts by referencing specific SEO guidelines or best practices. 

This approach will help your employee understand that the feedback is not a personal attack, but an opportunity for growth and development within the agency.

Agency Tip: It's important to distinguish between a small amount of initial pushback (a sign of a healthy and engaged employee), and disrespect (where an individual continuously rejects feedback without making any effort to grow or adapt).

While initial resistance might indicate that your employee cares deeply about their work and wants to stand by their decisions, persistent disrespect hinders professional development and collaboration within your marketing agency. Encouraging an open dialogue and a willingness to learn from feedback is vital for fostering growth and maintaining a productive work environment.

8) DO End on a Positive Note

After you've discussed the issues and provided suggestions for improvement, end the conversation by thanking your employee for listening to your feedback. Reiterate that you appreciate their contributions and are looking forward to seeing improvements in their performance. 

Express that you believe in them. Maybe discuss how they improved their performance in the past or how you appreciated their work on another project. Overall, you want them to leave the conversation knowing that you gave them this feedback because you believe in them and their ability to improve their performance.

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What NOT To Do When Giving Constructive Criticism to Agency Employees

1) DON’T Wait Too Long

Employee problems can easily fester. In fact, they can spread to other employees or departments. So, the longer you leave it, the more the problem can impact your whole agency.

Example: I had an employee once that I really liked, but who wasn’t doing her job very well. It felt like she just wasn’t able to carry out her tasks effectively–even after being provided specific direction–and she was frequently missing deadlines. 

We knew she had some personal things going on, and hoped that when those were resolved, her performance would improve. We were convinced she would catch up eventually and didn’t address things in a timely manner. So, we let it go on for a long time. 

Unfortunately, morale went down across the board as her coworkers started having to clean up her messes and smooth things over with clients when her mistakes caused problems. Eventually, we had to let this employee go, but by that time, several other employees had already been negatively impacted.

We realized that by not addressing the issues with that one employee’s performance earlier, we cost ourselves a great deal of money in lost performance of several other employees as they dealt with her mistakes, and their engagement decreased.

Moral of the story?

Address the issue as soon as possible to avoid bigger problems down the road, and prevent others on the team from picking up the bad behavior.

Tackling the issue early shows that you take it seriously and are proactive in finding a solution.

2) DON’T Be Vague

General feedback doesn't help anyone. If you give vague feedback, your employees may not fully understand the issue or know how to correct it. It also leaves room for misunderstandings and frustrations on both sides.

Be specific about what needs to change and why. This will help the employee understand what you're looking for and how they can improve. 

3) DON’T Make It Personal

Focus on the behavior, not the person. This helps prevent any defensiveness or hurt feelings.

Making it personal leads to unnecessary tension and animosity in the workplace. It also undermines the trust and respect between you and your employees.

Example: Let’s say you notice that a team member at your marketing agency has been consistently late submitting reports. Instead of saying, "You're always late with your reports; you're so disorganized," try framing it as, "I've noticed that the reports have been delayed recently, and it's affecting project timelines. Let's discuss how we can ensure timely submissions moving forward." 

This approach focuses on the behavior and the impact on work processes, fostering a more constructive conversation while maintaining a respectful working relationship.

4) DON’T Rely Solely on Written Communication

It may be tempting to send feedback in a quick email. Let's face it, that's often the most convenient form of communication for you as a busy agency owner. 

However, much can be lost in translation through written communication.

Face-to-face conversations allow for better connection and can help prevent any misunderstandings.

Take the time to book a meeting in-person or via video conferencing, to create an environment that ensures all feedback is clearly understood.

Agency Tip: That said, following up after a particularly important conversation in written form is helpful to provide a written record of the feedback given, and any action steps discussed. This can also serve as a reminder for both you and your employee in the future.

5) DON’T Criticize in Public

The truth is that public shaming simply doesn't work. And if you deliver criticism in public, even if you do not mean to publicly shame your employee, that's how it may feel. So, the response you get from them might be less than optimal.

Public criticism is both embarrassing and demoralizing. It undermines an employee's confidence and can create a negative work environment. If you need to discuss something with an employee, do it in private. There’s nothing motivating about being called out in front of your coworkers.

6) DON’T Provide Criticism Until You've Addressed Your Own Emotions

Lastly, it's important to note that when your employee hasn't lived up to your expectations, you'll have your own emotional responses. 

Example: If you hear from a client that your employee made a major mistake in a PPC campaign, you might feel frustrated or even angry. You may be worried that it will cost you a big client account or even damage your reputation if the client is upset enough to speak publicly about their complaint.

However, going to the employee in the heat of the moment is never a good idea. Take time to calm down and gather your thoughts before having a conversation with the employee. This allows you to approach the situation objectively and professionally, which will lead to a more productive discussion. 

Remember, it's not about venting or getting your frustrations off your chest–it's about helping the employee improve their performance for the sake of the agency and their own professional growth. 

Take a deep breath, go for a walk or whatever you need to do to address your own emotions first. Then have the conversation when you're in a better headspace.

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Sample Scripts for Giving Employees Constructive Criticism

What does all of this look like in action? Dos and Don'ts are great, but it may still be difficult to come up with the words to actually put into practice what we're talking about here. That’s why I’ve put together a few sample scripts for giving feedback to your employees:

Example 1: Feedback on Quality of Work

Before You Start

What to Say

Before You Start

If you’re not already aware, gather an understanding of the details of the project. What were the expectations that were set out? 

What to Say

"Hey, (employee's name), I wanted to take some time to talk to you about the project you submitted yesterday. I want to start by saying how much I appreciate your effort and commitment. I think the overall design was fantastic. However, there were some inconsistencies in the text alignment. Can we work together to ensure that this doesn't happen in the future?"

Example 2: Feedback on Team Dynamics

Before You Start

What to Say

Before You Start

Start the conversation by asking how the employee is doing personally to show concern and start to ascertain if that is part of the issue. 

What to Say

"I noticed that at yesterday's meeting you were really actively engaged in our discussion about our latest project. However, the conversation between you and (employee name) got really intense. Honestly, it may have crossed a line. I know you mean well, you made some good points and really want the best for this project. At the same time, you came across much harsher than you meant to."

Example 3: Feedback on Communication Style

Before You Start

What to Say

Begin by setting the stage, explaining what you’d like to talk about. “I appreciate how you’ve been jumping in more often and leading more meetings with our clients. It can be really intimidating to talk to clients. And I know last week you had a particularly stressful client meeting. I wanted to give you some feedback about how to communicate more effectively with clients, ok?”

Then pause. This gives them a bit of a heads up about what’s coming and allows the employee to mentally prepare themselves to receive the feedback.

“Let’s be honest, you know a LOT about SEO. Much more than some of our clients. I think when you start talking about SEO terms, you’re often speaking over their heads. It’s important that you explain SEO vocabulary in a basic way and check to make sure the clients understand. If they have a question, it’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that they’re stupid. It just means they’re not used to talking about these things.”

Example 4: Feedback on Deadlines

Before You Start

What to Say

Before You Start

Start the conversation by asking how the employee is doing personally to show concern and start to ascertain if that is part of the issue. 

What to Say

"Thank you for the great work you did on the (client name) project! I just saw the data and it's looking great! I did want to touch base about something else. I noticed that you missed last Friday's deadline. I understand that things come up, but this is the second time in a row that you've missed a deadline. Can you help me understand what's going on?"

As you can see from these examples, it's important to start with positive reinforcement before addressing the issue at hand. This helps build trust and ensure that your employee knows you appreciate their hard work and are invested in their success. 

It's also important to approach the issue calmly, objectively, and with a focus on finding a solution rather than placing blame. Remember, criticism is meant to help improve performance, not tear someone down.

Managing Agency Employees Isn't Easy

Giving negative feedback is probably my least favorite part of my job. Honestly, managing employees isn't easy. But it's an essential facet of managing an agency. 

When feedback is delivered effectively, it improves employee performance, increases confidence, and fosters a supportive work environment. By following the Dos and Don'ts of giving feedback, along with using the sample scripts provided, you'll be able to approach these conversations with confidence, and secure a positive outcome. 

Feedback isn't just about pointing out mistakes. It's about creating a culture of growth, development, and improvement.

As a leader, it's your responsibility to cultivate that culture within your agency. 

So don't shy away from giving feedback–instead, embrace it as an opportunity for both you and your employees.

It's easy to create and assign new tasks to your marketing agency team members.

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Jessica Tappana Owner Simplified SEO Consulting Headshot

Written by

Jessica Tappana

Jessica Tappana is a clinical therapist and owner of Simplified SEO, a successful SEO marketing agency operating out of Missouri.

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