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?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership

11 responses to “Putting the “Constructive” into Criticism

  1. I agree, I am not a big fan of the sandwich approach either, although so many people seem to believe that is the way. Sincerity and really wanting to help are key.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Karin ~ In theory, I guess the ‘sandwich’ is not a bad way to go but, as you say, if it lacks sincerity, it becomes a mechanical exercise that few really benefit from…or appreciate.

  2. Pingback: Putting the “Constructive” into Criticism | Nautilus - A Deep Dive On Some Narrow Topics | Scoop.it

  3. Sara Grace

    Great article. How about providing us insight into the timeliness of feedback too? Thanks!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Sara ~ Thanks! and…ahem, when I was very small, I would have gladly exchanged my name for ‘Karen’ but it didn’t happen so I’m stuck with Gwyn I’m afraid :). As for timeliness of feedback, my best thought on that is that it should be ‘fresh’. That means, the closer the feedback is to the performance or behaviour, the more relevant and useful it will be for the recipient.
      For more on feedback ( at least from my perspective), here is another post you may be interested in https://gwynteatro.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/feedback-criticism-or-opportunity-2/
      Thanks for your interest and for taking the time to comment, Sara.

  4. Relevant points. Sadly very few organizations as in the people who occupy senior level follow this. Employee engagement canbe increased with constructive criticism and true appreciation.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Lalita ~ Yes, I agree. I suspect there are still far too many organizations that place less value on these things than we’d like. That’s why we have to keep writing about it; talking about it; and finding examples that illustrate the tangible benefits of developing skills that ‘energize’ people not shut them down. How we choose to criticize…and why, is a big part of that.
      Thank you very much for adding your voice to the choir 🙂

  5. Pingback: Putting the “Constructive” into Criticism | digitalNow | Scoop.it

  6. Alex Jones

    You make a good point. Some criticism is mere opinion. Ask anyone about if Lady Gaga is doing a good job, everyone and their dog will have an opinion. The only people that matter are those that are directly concerned with the issue being criticised, otherwise it is opinion, which is junk that can be ignored.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      You must be playing ‘catch up’ Alex. Your comments are coming thick and fast…and I am grateful for them. Thank you.

      And yes, someone once said, “what you think of me is none of my business”. While this seems like a very sensible approach to unwanted and unhelpful criticism, I think it takes a highly confident and well practiced person not to be touched by it in some way.

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