The very idea of criticism gets a bad rap. In everyday use, the word carries a negative connotation. Most of us think criticism points out what is wrong with something, or why something “isn’t right.”
In fact, the concept of “constructive criticism” can seem like a lofty goal. Most people automatically think that criticism = BAD. But this is not the case.
Criticism is the act of evaluating the merits and demerits of something and then making a judgment. Literary or artistic criticism, for example, is not about finding fault but about explaining and analyzing a given work. Criticism can be positive and, when delivered as such, can be a powerful tool in changing your behavior and perceptions or those of the people around you.
When delivered appropriately, criticism encourages us to do better, reach higher, and aspire to greater things. The problem is that far too many managers focus on the negative; they look for flaws and point out faults while offering no solutions or paths to success. If you are one of these managers, or if you’ve had one (and most of us have), you probably dread criticism and avoid it at all costs. This is a mistake in our thinking that is more than worth adjusting.
Criticism often paves the way for major professional revelations and improvements. What if we stopped fearing it and started embracing it?
I had a client who recently told me that when he was fresh out of college, his new boss told him that he needed to stop using “big words” because people thought he was elitist and condescending. He said he was incensed at the time, but over the years, he came to appreciate the advice and realize that the boss was right. An erudite vocabulary can and will alienate a broad audience, and if you want to appeal to most people, you should communicate clearly and succinctly.
Even though criticism may not be embraced or accepted at the moment, it can have a lasting impact. With this in mind, here are some tips for giving and receiving criticism that can benefit everyone.
Even if you think it is constructive, be mindful of your tone when giving criticism. It is better to offer constructive criticism in a conversation than over email because speaking with someone makes it easier to intuit tone and implication. When you have discussions, provide actionable feedback. In other words, state how the person could develop their skills. Do not give feedback if you cannot share anything actionable. Criticism without suggestion is fruitless and benefits no one.
Most importantly, you want this to be a conversation, not a monologue where the manager goes on a diatribe about what needs to be done or fixed. Acknowledge what is working and going well, and link that to the desired future behavior.
If you are on the receiving end of the criticism, take a moment to digest what you’re hearing and don’t react from a place of impulsivity or emotion. Saying nothing could be your best strategy. More importantly, try to employ empathic listening techniques to understand how the criticism is coming across and what is being asked. It is highly likely that if someone is speaking to you about your performance, reaction, or work practices, there is some merit. Ask insightful questions to deconstruct the feedback, and request a follow-up. If your manager hasn’t provided you with a specific, actionable plan, request that they do so.
When giving criticism, it is imperative to ensure that feedback is relevant and accurate. “I don’t like how you did this” is not valid criticism. Just because you don’t like something does not mean it is wrong. Not everyone works the same way you do. This is why being specific and actionable is important. “When you spoke with the client, you shared a 2-week project delivery timeline. It is now 3 weeks later, and you haven’t communicated the delay to the client. You need to do so today to level-set expectations.” This is an example of specific, actionable criticism.
When you are receiving critical feedback, try not to take it personally and consider the validity of the comments. Consider engaging in these actionable suggestions. What would it look like, sound like, feel like? How might this change in behavior affect your outcomes and results?
If the criticism is a personal attack, that’s on your manager or whoever is providing said criticism, not on you. Be open, and don’t be defensive-- but don’t be a doormat, either.
Criticism is only effective in a culture of trust, open communication, and accountability. Done right, it can help everyone improve and be their best.