In our last installment, we introduced the concept of criticism using a fictitious encounter between a manager and subordinate. This extreme example of poorly-executed criticism allowed us to identify the three components of effective criticism: cultural setting, effectively transmitting the message, and effectively receiving the message.

For those in leadership and management roles, you may have a frequent need to provide criticism to your teams or organizations. Merely blurting out criticism will more than likely feel like an attack regardless of how well meaning the intention.  Before sharing your thoughts:

  • Ascertain and understand the intention or reason or reason for the person doing what they did – the initial criticism may change or go away in the context of the intended outcome.
  • Show that you care about the recipient.
  • State that your intention is to be helpful and show compassion.
  • Personalize your language and tailor your feedback to the recipient and their stated intentions.

Since, as we explained in our previous installment, the goal of criticism is to help the recipient enact positive change, it is important to give positive reinforcement.  This does not imply one should use the “feedback sandwich” in which one piece of negative feedback is buried between two positive comments.  There is a large body of research that shows recipients of a feedback sandwich rarely embrace the positive feedback, because they are stressed about the upcoming negative feedback (waiting for the other shoe to drop). The feedback sandwich may also cause the recipient to miss the negative feedback because they are trying to process the positive feedback.

Instead of the feedback sandwich, be direct with any negative criticism you may give, but provide feedback on the behavior, not the person.  Discuss the behavior by using examples and methods that can be used to improve the behavior.  This focus on behavior improvement will help motivate the recipient.

Smell the Roses.  There is a model in change management called Appreciative Inquiry.  Appreciative Inquiry focuses on systematically searching for what are the best attributes in people when they are most effective and most capable. With this approach personal strengths are aligned in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.

Own it: When giving criticism remember that you are speaking only for yourself, giving only your opinion. You are not speaking on behalf of an audience.  In fact, your opinions may differ completely from others if there are others involved.  Avoid saying “we think,” “we believe,” “we didn’t understand,” and other words that imply you are speaking on behalf of others.  Inappropriately speaking as a “we” instead of as an “I” leads to attribution errors and can make the recipient feel unnecessarily paranoid that an imaginary “they” is out there with an opinion.

Also, avoid impersonal statements that imply someone other than you is giving the criticism.  Do not imply the evaluation is directed by some universal group to someone other than the intended recipient. Do not say “one must,” “people are,” or make other vague references.

Avoid these tactics:

  • Repetition: When providing criticism don’t repeat a point once you have made it. Repeating a point can sound like nagging.
  • Exaggeration: Words like “never” and “always,” are exaggerations and will only detract from your message.
  • Judgement: Avoid judgmental phrases, such as “good leaders don’t,” “that was the wrong thing to say,” “if you want to do it right, you must.” Instead use phrases that describe your own reactions such as “I was impressed by,” “I was confused about,” “when I heard,” and “I liked when.”  A sentence construction that often works remarkably well is, “in situation X, when you said (or did) thing Y, it made me feel Z”

As a leader, choosing your delivery method is the most critical part of giving criticism and can either foster a positive change in behavior or create hostility and resentment. In the next installment, we’ll explore the cultural context of criticism and what cultural elements leaders need to consider.

Do you need support with delivering effective feedback in your organization? Contact us today.

If you’d like to learn more check out Part 1: How To Say It and Part 3: The Cultural Context in Which it is Said.