Why criticism needs to be constructive


You would have seen various people lamenting publicly about the state of the government, the poor performance of their favorite sports team, about proposed financial reforms and various other topics where an opinion can be formed. There are an abundance of folks to provide negative feedback or criticism. However, there are very few who provide an alternative means to do this better!

This becomes extremely important in a professional environment due to the three different groups of people that you can deliver criticism to:

1. Criticism delivered to a peer
2. Criticism delivered to a subordinate
3. Criticism delivered to a superior

Before I embark on explaining what I mean by the above categories, I would like to outline right at the outset that the word “criticism” is being used in a very broad perspective and the critique that I am referring to could be in the form of feedback about someone’s behavior/performance, opinions on a new proposal, discussions/comments on someone’s ideas in a strategy meeting etc.

Criticism delivered to a peer

This is probably the least thought about and most instinctive in nature. It is a normal tendency to bounce a new idea or a proposal off a close confidant or a friend who is in the same line of work or understands the business intricacies of your organization. This provides a means of a sanity check for the individual to make sure that he/she is not running after an unrealistic goal. Blatant negativity or outright dismissal in such a situation would definitely hurt the individual’s morale and prevent further such interactions in the future. If the person is of an easily discouraged nature, then more than one such encounter would have killed the individual’s urge to innovate!

Criticism delivered to a subordinate

Now this to most leaders might seem an easy task because the feedback is being delivered to their direct reports or someone reporting into their chain of command. A good leader never falls into the “I am the boss and they are supposed to listen to what I say” trap. Rather a good leader learns to understand what motivates his employees/subordinates and uses the passion that drives them to get them motivated to deliver on business results. Innovation and success of the world’s top companies were the collective effort of a visionary leader and an energized workforce. It requires a leader who listens to his/her workforce and made sure he/she drove them towards the path of success by incorporating all the effective ideas into an effective strategy for success. So if you are curbing free thought in your organization but not recognizing or acknowledging the effort of the individual who is thinking about a long term strategy, then you definitely might regret it at a later time if a market competitor picked up the individual and his/her idea and used it against you. There are various such stories of examples similar to this in history. But if you as a leader saw a nascent idea and recognized the potential of such an idea, encouraged the subordinate to think more clearly, provided constructive feedback by outlining why there were some holes in the idea(s) and what could be done to possibly address them, then you as a leader will be successful in fostering passion  and innovation in your workforce.

Criticism delivered to a superior

This is probably the most difficult part of providing feedback. The most common reason for apprehension for providing feedback to a superior is the fear of backlash. If you as a leader exhibit the openness to encourage feedback about company/team strategies, then you will have taken the first step in encouraging feedback. You as an employee need to make sure that you understand or try to understand the reasoning behind a team/company strategy, then you will find that you are in a better position to give feedback. The most common reaction to a new company/team strategy is negativity and pessimism when the enforcement or execution of such a strategy will throw you out of your comfort zone or ask you to do things differently or learn a new way of doing things even though the current way doing the same thing is still working. Proving feedbacks which fall under this category requires a level for compromise from both sides so that they can understand each other by standing on common ground! In this situation, constructive feedback is very pertinent because the strategy/idea would have come after serious thought, planning and time investment. So if you are disagreeing, be ready to get into a discussion about the pitfalls and the possible remediation measures for the same!

In all the above situations, the primary motive in such situations before giving any sort of such feedback would be to understand what were the motivations behind such a reasoning/need. Remember that “your path is not the only right path and your way is not the only way to get a job done“! Be respectful of someone else’s ideas but do not hesitate to point out the pitfalls and suggest alternative means of addressing the pitfall.

At a restaurant, just saying that the grilled chicken tasted bad only points out that you (out of the 10 people that also ordered the same dish) didn’t like the grilled chicken. But if you said that the grilled chicken didn’t taste good because you felt it was a bit more raw than it was supposed to be, then you managed to provide to constructive feedback. This provides an actionable item for the cook responsible for preparing the grilled chicken next time!

I have worked in an organization where delivering all the above three different types of feedback were encouraged which made it possible for me to learn the intricacies of giving and receiving feedback in an open and respectful manner at a very early stage of my career!

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Posted on November 7, 2011, in Business and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think part of the trouble is the use of “criticism”. In recent years, people no longer ask a team mate about something, they “confront” them. Always, the harshest word choice is used, and then the mindset follows.
    Here, in all these cases you proivde, you’re wanting to criticize. Instead, consider reviewing an incident with the other person, or offering some suggestions for a smoother next-time. Regardless of the relationship, the result will more likely be positive.
    With years, comes wisdom.

  2. Feedback is very different from criticism which is what I outline in my summary. I would think people would be open to receive actionable/constructive feedback as it helps them improve rather than confronting someone about an action without giving them any suggestions!

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