Constructive criticism can be difficult to give and receive because there is always the possibility the receiver can react negatively to any type of criticism, especially if they regularly receive criticism that is angry, blaming or condescending.
I encounter managers, supervisors and employees who avoid giving any type of criticism for fear of the conversation going in an undesirable direction. So what can happen is the target of the criticism is allowed to get away with inappropriate actions because their boss and peers are reluctant to take any type of corrective action.
Then there are managers, supervisors and employees on the opposite side of the spectrum who tell the cold, hard truth, with or without good intentions. Unfortunately, depending on how cold and hard the truth is, it can strip away the dignity and humanity of the receiver and can lead to an angry or withdrawn response.
A Model of Constructive Criticism
Managers sometimes use approaches designed to deliver criticism in a constructive way. There are writers that suggest the “oreo” approach where you start the conversation with something positive, then introduce the criticism constructively and then you end on a note that reinforces the employee’s strengths and your intent to provide support. This is not my favorite approach because depending on who is doing it, the approach can seem insincere. A key consideration is to only use this approach if you are skilled enough to sound unrehearsed because you will be perceived as inauthentic or phony.
There are people who avoid telling the whole truth when providing criticism because there is the clear and present risk that it can be held against them by the receiver. This is because most people don’t want to hear the truth if it isn’t aligned with their perception of themselves, even when they ask you for your views. It is important to read the situation and provide a truthful response when an authentic question is asked. Otherwise, you will have to read the situation and determine if the timing is right or if you should not respond at all. Always be authentic, even if your answer is not to respond.
Curiosity is open, interested and unbiased. It invites trust, openness and creativity by:
- Posing questions that are not assumption based
- Being open to diversity
- Avoiding placing labels on people and situations
Questioning is an important tool that is an integral part of curiosity. A leader never has all the answers so you can invite the person receiving the criticism to provide their views and alternative solutions. The best questioners are skilled at formulating questions that will help the receiver of criticism build their confidence and knowledge. Two quick tips for questioning in situations where you want criticism to be constructive are to avoid questions that lead the receiver to your desired outcome or ones that cause the receiver to feel interrogated.
When providing anyone with criticism, timing is everything. The first tip is to avoid telling them the truth in front of others. This causes you to appear to be unprofessional and it is easier for someone to accept criticism if they are not embarrassed.
Secondly, avoid providing criticism if you are in a negative emotional state. Finally, try to avoid constructively criticizing someone if they are in a rush. They may not decode your message accurately because they are in a stressed state or because they are focused on something else.
Respect is very important if you want your communication to be constructive. Avoid labeling people using words like liar or stupid. Stay away from shouting and profanity or using words like never and always. You can get your message across effectively without expressing your negative opinions.
For instance, if an employee tells you something that sounds like an untruth, you can say, “I realize you think that is the case but based on my investigation I found something else to be the case. Help me to understand the gap between what you are saying and what I found to be the case.” In this example, you are not calling the person a liar, you are inviting them to help you understand the facts because you may have been provided with misinformation.
Another communication tip is to be clear and concise. Managers, supervisors and employees start out with good intentions to provide constructive criticism but they “chicken out” and use language that is so vague and tactful that the real message is lost in tactfulness.
The Art of Listening
When providing constructive criticism, you will be more effective if you are equally adept at listening objectively to the person receiving the criticism because you need to know if they are listening to you. You can tell if the message is not being received as constructive if they are defensive, blaming or giving excuses.
In closing I would like to leave you with a quotation from an unknown author, “Constructive criticism is essential in any arena that requires creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. Since leadership requires all three, leaders need to be sure they are not only open to criticism, but that they actively seek it out. Ask people — direct reports, peers, customers — to poke holes in your ideas and approaches. Critique can be a useful approach to test ideas.”
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.