Constructive Criticism – An Acquired Taste

by | Apr 25, 2018 | 5 Minutes to Lead, Professional Growth

To me, constructive criticism is when people take ownership of their ideas. That’s why I don’t listen to anything that’s anonymous.
– Brene Brown

An acquired taste: something you may dislike at first, but start to like after you have tried it a few times.

Constructive criticism can be something we dislike at first yet appreciate when delivered well. We respect leaders who blend candor and encouragement to help us improve by giving us the feedback we need and expect.

My experience is positive feedback in the workplace today is the norm and constructive feedback is the exception. Many leaders have good intentions, asking their team members for candid feedback, yet sometimes they punish the truth tellers. Others are worried about being liked and avoid a necessary crucial conversation. Both leadership styles breed distrust leading to a dysfunctional environment.

The reality is most of us desire and expect candid feedback. By a three to one margin, respondents in a 2013 Harvard Business Review study believe that constructive criticism does more to improve their performance than positive feedback. More respondents (57 percent) prefer receiving constructive criticism over positive feedback (43 percent).

The Harvard study also revealed constructive criticism is rarely provided – most leaders dislike these conversations. The default becomes avoidance and the standard is “no news is good news”. The real news is ineffective behavior without an intervention does not go away.

Leaders provide the intervention necessary for growth and excellence, to say what needs to be said. Think of a teacher, coach, or supervisor who helped you improve through the right message: how was that delivered?

I have been fortunate to be on the receiving end of constructive criticism. A project I led which was late and poorly delivered. My boss brought me to his office to discuss the result and I was not looking forward to the conversation. I was prepared to accept blame for the project – to my surprise, he began by reflecting on what he did not do well.

He told me his initial request had an unrealistic deadline and he forgot to share a resource that would have been helpful. Next, he outlined where I did not meet his expectations. He did not let me off easily; I deserved the lesson, yet he demonstrated a caring attitude. His candor prompted me to better understand my failure to deliver and learn from the experience.
He modeled the way and I eagerly followed. Together we learned from the process, improved the result, and built a long-term relationship.

Three keys to delivering constructive criticism:

How – Respect the Individual

Reflect on how you contributed to the ineffective behavior. Establish a private dialogue, not a debate, by asking for their feedback. Public praise generally is effective – criticism should be reserved to a personal discussion.

I still think back to my high school tennis coach ridiculing me in front of the team. The coach regularly called me out for small mistakes and my commitment to the team. I was working part-time to save for college, and focused on balancing life and sports. The season began and I was the #1 player and a leader on our team – soon the bitter taste of criticism was more than I could bear and my playing deteriorated. I survived the coach, who was dismissed, and learned a valuable lesson on how to treat people with respect.

What – Be Specific

Remember, most people want candid feedback. Anticipate their “for example” question and be specific what behavior needs to change. Your examples should describe the situation, their behavior, and the impact to others.

When – Now

Praise and constructive criticism do not benefit from elapsed time. Leaders step up and have the conversation.
Your leadership journey depends on learning the art of effectively providing and receiving feedback. Take ownership of your ideas and help others grow by being respectful, specific, and timely. The taste may be bitter at first – the aftertaste is the satisfaction of becoming an admired leader.

Giving constructive criticism is important, but knowing how to receive it is crucial too. Stay tuned for my next newsletter on what it means to be on the receiving end of that constructive criticism, how to take it well and move forward.

Have a great week!