The “Gift” of Constructive Criticism

A couple of recent articles reminded me of something that I both learned painfully and continue to struggle with after several decades in the workplace- “Constructive criticism aka feedback is a gift and should be recognized as such”.

No one really likes to get feedback that is not positive, at least initially, but a couple of articles recently talked about the connection between emotional intelligence and the ability to mine that feedback for value by keeping a few things in mind.

Diane Gottsman in her article How to Accept and Give Criticism with Grace, provides some great ground rules that while not earth shattering or rocket science can be very helpful.

·        Be aware of your body language

·        Be prepared mentally and emotionally

·        Remain calm and don’t respond with angry excuses

·        Rethink the word/concept of criticism. I personally try to avoid that language and use constructive feedback in its place.

·        Be appreciative- of the effort if not the content.

From my own experience I have learned a couple of other suggestions I would add:

·        Focus on the feedback not the person. It is easy to reject the right feedback from the wrong person.

·        Recognize that everyone is not equally skilled in their language or their technique. Listen for the message carefully. This is especially true when there is an unequal power relationship like subordinate to boss or provider to customer.

·        Try to adopt the standard of most positive interpretation, this means giving the person the benefit of positive intent even if their delivery is less than perfect.

Most people would rather get a sharp poke in the eye rather than give feedback whether it is to a colleague, a subordinate, and especially a superior, but constructive feedback is both critical to teamwork and improved performance it is a fundamental expectation of the Millennial generation. Their intraprenurial mindset looks at careers and opportunities to increase their skills and value. They expect timely, balanced, and meaningful feedback as a fundamental right.

Even with all the hoo hah about blowing up traditional performance evaluation the root cause there is that the process is typically done so poorly, not that recipients don’t want feedback. The typical annual review system is an epic fail. It isn’t timely, it isn’t balanced, and many find it marginally meaningful.

As a recovering HR executive I find that many performance evaluation systems are designed by HR professionals to impress other HR professionals and to deliver limited pay increases. They aren’t user friendly to the actual manager and recipient.

Gottsman also mentions some guidelines for giving feedback to make it more meaningful and useful.

·        Be private. No one wants a critique in public

·        Focus on issues or behaviors not on people. People own their behavior they aren’t their behavior.

·        Be specific, especially about the impact on the work, work group, etc.

·        Provide suggestions.

·        Be available and follow up. It is a process not an event.

In my perspective if you can’t tie your feedback to the work and work performance and provide a suggestion as to how to improve it isn’t feedback. It is just petty criticism.

Justin Bariso in his article How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Criticism, adds some additional great suggestions, ask yourself these two questions:

·        Putting my personal feelings aside, what can I learn from this alternate perspective?

·        Instead of focusing on the delivery, how can I use this feedback to help me or my team improve?

He uses the illustration of a scathing review a top chef received from a New York Times food critic as a great example of how to own the issue and use it as a vehicle to improve future performance.

I firmly believe that the ability to constructively provide and receive feedback is essential to building trust and trust is the foundation for high functioning relationships both personal and professional.

You will never make the transition from manager to leader if you don’t master this skill.

Covey’s third and highest level of trust, identity based trust, simply can’t be achieved without honest dialogue and mutual investment.

Employee engagement worldwide still remains at what I believe to be unacceptably low levels and it is things like trust, congruency, and alignment that are going to address the causes of low engagement and get us the performance we want, not technology, six sigma or other process interventions and feedback is an essential building block….



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