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"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots." - Frank A. Clark

Think, for a moment, about the last time someone said this to you: "I'd like to offer you some constructive criticism."

We all know when someone uses that phrase, they are about to unload their opinions or judgements on us, and we probably aren't going to like what they have to say.

No one likes receiving constructive criticism, yet, as leaders, we often find ourselves delivering just that. What's more, we expect our employees to accept that criticism with grace. If we know that it doesn't work for us, why do we expect it to work for others?

If you want to be heard when delivering feedback, abolish the phrase "constructive criticism" from your vocabulary and, instead, focus on delivering constructive feedback.

What's So Wrong With Constructive Criticism, Anyway?

Criticism, by definition, is destructive. Therefore, it is impossible to actually deliver constructive criticism. The moment you criticize someone, you are essentially telling that person, "I am right, and you are wrong." In turn, that individual instantly shifts into a defensive mode and they begin to push back. Once you unleash criticism, you set the tone for an unhealthy and unproductive conversation.

Constructive Feedback Keeps The Conversation Objective

When addressing a behavior or performance issue that you'd like to change, you must avoid inserting your feelings and viewpoints into the conversation. The most effective tactic is to stick to objective observations about a specific pattern of behavior.

Transactional Analysis shows us that we behave in one of three ways: as the Parent, the Child, or the Adult. The Parent offers their opinions - more often than not in a condescending way, the Child is overly emotional, and the Adult speaks rationally and without bias. If you give feedback as a Parent, you can expect your employee to react as a Child. By speaking to them as an Adult, you increase the likelihood of having a productive conversation.

To offer objective feedback in a way that virtually guarantees it will be heard, specifics are crucial . When delivering feedback, whether positive or negative, you must come to the table with no less than three examples of that behavior in action. Doing something once is a mistake. Doing it repeatedly is a pattern, also known as behavior.

When delivering constructive feedback in a coaching session , avoid generalizing or focusing on the individual. For example, this is the wrong way to approach a salesperson who has been struggling with irate customers:

Susan, you are doing a poor job of managing unhappy and angry customers. Your attitude must change.

These statements are far too vague and border on a personal attack. Susan has nothing to draw from in her own memory or experience that backs up your position. She doesn't know what the behavior looks like in action, so she's likely to repeat it - perhaps unknowingly - in the future.

A more productive, objective approach looks like this:

Susan, I've noticed that you are having some difficulty managing angry customers lately, which isn't like you. I'd like to help you work through it. Last week, I heard you on the phone telling the buyer from ABC Incorporated that her incorrect delivery was not your problem. I received an email from Bob at XYZ Corporation on the 13th, which I can show you today, letting me know that you hung up on him when he was upset that his widget broke. This morning, I heard you angrily tell Joan at LMNO Enterprises, your highest-paying customer, that you didn't have the time to listen to her complain. Let's talk about how we should handle these situations, and what we can do to support you so that you can manage upset customers appropriately.

Did you notice the differences in the approach? In the first conversation you were simply stating your opinion. In the second, you opened the door to a productive conversation with Susan. That approach lets her:

  • See the pattern of behavior.
  • Agree that the pattern should change.
  • Ask questions to arrive at planned solution with you.
  • Become an active participant in the process.

Providing specifics also lessens the chances that Susan will argue or feel as though you are making a personal attack. With solid evidence, you've made a case for the behavior, and you can begin to work with Susan to correct it.

Don't Become A Character Assassin!

When delivering constructive feedback, always keep the focus on the behavior, and steer clear of any language that demeans the individual's character. In the example above, the leader makes it clear that Susan's tone, patience and language with customers is the behavior she needs to change, not Susan's personality. It's a small but crucial difference.

Delivering feedback, especially if that feedback is negative, isn't easy, but your employees can see right through the "constructive criticism" label. In order to have your feedback heard and increase the chances it will be acted upon, change your mindset and banish criticism from your vocabulary.


Larry Hart

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