Bill just could not stand it anymore. He needed to relieve some pressure and Jim needed to learn to get his act together. Bill pulled Jim aside.

“Jim, the problem is we have noticed your productivity is always lacking. You are the only one who is ever behind on projects; why is that?” Before Jim could respond, Bill continued.

“Not only are you always late with everything, your progress reports are never any good. Have you been doing anything to improve on these issues?” All of Bill’s frustrations continued to tumble out without any regard to Jim’s response. At that point, Bill had completely lost sight of his overall objective and instead, found himself in a full rant.

“We think you need to improve and fast. Your lack of effort really makes it difficult to give you constructive feedback.”

Jim mumbled a few words of acknowledgement, and then excused himself from the meeting. In the days and weeks to come, Jim reflected on Bill’s criticism, cringed at the memory of it, and then would carry on with his day. He attempted to improve his performance, but Bill’s harsh and vague feedback didn’t provide much guidance on exactly what to do differently.

While there may have been issues with Jim’s performance, think about how Bill chose to handle this: was it productive? Did the conversation produce a mutually beneficial result? Criticism , by definition, is a critical observation or remark. When we hear the word criticism, the fight or flight mechanism kicks in for most of us, because to receive criticism can be soul crushing. However, if we never hear criticism we will never improve our performance. To work through this dichotomy, we have adopted a host of euphemisms to use instead of “criticism”: appraisal, assessment, evaluation, opinion, and feedback. Regardless of the word we use, the activity itself is a social interaction, meant to be educational, and provide either a corrective or a re-enforcement message in any endeavor.

The goal of criticism then is to help the recipient enact positive change.

For criticism to have its desired effect, three factors must be aligned:

  • The setting and culture need to be appropriate
  • The message needs to be transmitted correctly
  • The message needs to be received correctly

Criticism should not be used to punish the recipient or as a frustration release for the one providing criticism. The example in this installment is extreme but not unprecedented. In the next installment, we’ll explore what to think about before giving criticism and discuss some useful language to use in giving criticism.

This blog post is part of a four-part blog series on Effective Criticism. 

  1. Part 1: The Problem Is…
  2. Part 2: How To Say It
  3. Part 3: The Cultural Context in Which it is Said
  4. Part 4: How to Receive It