* Putting the “Constructive” into Criticism

Winston Churchill once said; “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

I really think this is a good way to look at it regardless of whether you are the criticism giver or receiver.  But, there is criticism… and then there is criticism.

Most leaders like to preface the word ‘criticism’ with the word ‘constructive’.  That makes its aim one of building rather than tearing down.  However, not all carry out the ‘constructive’ part well, which usually means the ‘criticism’ part is prone to cause an already “unhealthy state of things” to deteriorate even further.

So how do we make sure the criticism we deliver is going to be worthwhile for those on the receiving end to hear and consider?

Well, I think before we proceed to offer criticism, we must first put ourselves under some scrutiny by addressing our intent. For instance:

Why do I feel the need to criticize? ~ Criticizing constructively must carry with it an equally constructive purpose.  If, for instance, my criticism of you comes out of anger, frustration or another negative emotion then I’m using it to vent not to make things better.  So, first I must determine how my criticism might serve you in some way.

What, or who, am I concerned about? ~Similarly, if my criticism of you will make me feel better, then I’m probably doing it for the wrong reason.   Caring about people you lead often includes pointing out things to them that they cannot see for themselves.  In other words the focus of criticism needs to be on enlightenment not on wielding power over another.

Am I prepared to listen? ~ When we offer criticism it is usually because we have a concern about someone’s behaviour, performance, or both.  We draw conclusions based on what we observe, what we experience, and what others tell us.  However, to make criticism useful to people on the receiving end, they have to know that we are willing to hear from them too.  Otherwise the information on which we base our judgment will be incomplete and in danger of being wrong, misconstrued, rationalized away or ignored.

Once we are satisfied that our criticism carries with it a constructive intent, I also think it important to remember this:

Criticizing another person’s behaviour or performance is not a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ proposition ~ There are many ways to offer constructive criticism.  Some people recommend beginning with something positive; moving on to the negative; and then finishing with something else positive (popularly known as the crap sandwich). I’m not a big fan of that because, even with the best of intent, using a prescribed method of delivery can come across as contrived, even condescending.

For me, sincerity is the only thing that matters, even if the delivery is a little rough.

Abraham Lincoln said, “ He has a right to criticize who has a heart to help

To me, that says it all.  What do you think?

*Originally published, October 14, 2012

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4 Comments

Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development

4 responses to “* Putting the “Constructive” into Criticism

  1. Gwyn, I think this post is brilliant. I love how you get at the underlying issues around criticism. Personally, I prefer to avoid that word altogether and instead use “feedback.” To me “feedback” is more neutral and has less judgment implied. I see it as me sharing how I view the situation and then inviting the other person to share their view of it. In my experience using the word “feedback” fosters a dialogue more naturally. Especially if I begin by saying something like, “I’d like to share some feedback with you that I observed at yesterday’s meeting. My purpose in doing so would be to contribute to your growth and also to understand your perspective on the meeting, Would you be open to that conversation?” Then when I share the feedback I do so in a neutral tone, as if I’m a video camera describing what I observed and not layering it with other interpretations. So, that’s my 2 cents on the topic and I know you’ll have at least 5 cents to add!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ Here are the reasons I would not hesitate to listen to what you have to tell me. First you are clear in your intent; second, you are sincere in your delivery and so I’m going to trust what you have to say; and third you are willing to see more than your own perspective on the thing you’re going to talk to me about. For me, regardless of whether you call it ‘feedback’ or ‘criticism’, your “2 cents” is worth at least a dollar. Thank you for that :)

  2. Pingback: “ He has a right to criticize who has a heart to help” | Management Briefs

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