Constructive Critique: Delicate Adjustment

One of the top manager’s important competences is being able to provide effective feedback or effective criticisms. Enabling the employees to put the fruit of their effort in perspective, exposing merits and demerits – what’s so difficult about it? In reality it turns out that very few can motivate and inspire while criticizing… In the meantime, wrong criticism brings directly opposite results: procrastination, sabotage, demotivation, etc. What is “effective feedback” and how it should be provided?
Undoubtedly, as part of the conflict management, criticism is extremely important in relationships between the manager and employees, since it guides, corrects, makes one to rethink, reflect and move forward. Meanwhile, as suggested by plentiful studies, intensive and severe criticism often has zero effectiveness, since a person criticized may raise a very tall “fence” around his “ego” to hide behind it. Therefore, the first and main rule of the one who criticizes is ensuring safety and security for the one whom you are going to criticize. It’s important to understand that the capacity to perceive criticism is inseparable from the sense of protection and ego-preservation instinct, so if you are truly intent on holding a dialogue with your employee, rather than the walls of your office, take care of their protection.

One of the key rules of effective criticism is telling a person first what s/he would be pleased to hear. “I am very happy that you tackled this challenging project”, “this was a bold move on your part to reply to the client in this way”, etc. In any situation you may find something positive for both sides, which can be perceived as an upside. Then via this bridge you may come closer to discussing successes and failures… Recognition, acceptance, safety – these are essential factors for the subsequent perception of critical information. Only when a person is “open”, feeling that nobody is going to trample his ego underfoot, you may set up a mirror in front of him or her.

Regarding the crushed ego… criticism in business is often more about the manager’s self-assertion than effective feedback for the subordinate… Each one knows how difficult it is to resist the temptation of showing your superiority, better awareness of any particular matter, proving that you are “faster, taller, stronger…” Obviously this is not the most effective way to improve the performance, when your subordinate feels that s/he is not accepted and a priori denigrated, since their sense of personal safety is at stake, which means that an impenetrable fence is getting taller and taller. How to learn using “feedback” as a help instead of using it to crush subordinates? How to recognize early symptoms of the urge towards self-assertion and safeguard those in need of help in the form of creative criticisms?

What are the criteria of constructive criticism? How can you see whether you are currently ready for effective feedback, rather than for superiority demonstration? In fact, the symptom is rather simple: if phrases like “let him only come in here”, “I’ll cook his goose for him”, “how long can I put up with this outrage?” keep pulsating in your mind – this means you are unable to criticize in a constructive manner. Because at that very moment you are concerned only with your own persona “craving for revenge”, “anticipating reprisals”. Do you care for that other person, his or her motives, or their problems of growth and professional self-identification? Are you capable to think of helping that other person at that specific moment? If the answers are negative, it’s better to put off this talk till better times, since you are more concerned about your own persona, so the acute desire to discuss something normally proceeds from our personal interests, motivations, our own ego; however, in case of feedback the contrary must be true. If you are not content with the quality of your employee’s work, but you do not feel like talking, but more like delaying this unpleasant experience; moreover, if you do not feel any emotional uplift from anticipating this discussion and cannot find any salient associations, in order to put all things right ardently, it’s time to do it. It is at this time, when you lack any personal motive for a talk, any personal interest that feedback becomes an act of altruism, real help without the “chaff” of your own ego, deceived anticipations, unjustified hopes. You do not want to rise above the one you criticize or play the role of “supervising officer”, which means you are ready to help. The difference between constructive criticism and reprisals can be better understood through the prism of such concepts as “giving” and “receiving”. The first is a gift – something which is good for another and not necessarily good for yourself. Reprisals have the opposite logic: feeding your own ego at the expense of another.

And I repeat once again: the main symptom of whether you are ready to provide constructive feedback or not is the strength of your desire to criticize. The stronger it is, the less your criticism will benefit your employee. And vice versa: the lack of an acute urge to criticize means a high probability that feedback will be effective. If you want to speak out, better keep silent! If you do not feel like talking, make sure you converse with your employee!

Evidently, constructive criticism is impossible without the other party willing to accept it, which means that even if the criticizing boss finds most appropriate words, they won’t be worth a button if a wrong time and place for a feedback is chosen… What’s the right way to assess the readiness for perceiving critical information? Is it possible to get somehow in tune with the counteragent?

In my opinion, it is fundamentally important for any boss to “be present” in the life of his managers, to understand what drives and inspires each of them, what grieves them to their hearts, what disturbs them from equilibrium or demotivates them. Each person has an individual set of answers to all of these questions, but knowing this “pin code”, you can work effectively with each member of your team. Only through the understanding of true motives, human nature, way of thinking, personal context will you be able to effectively delegate some or other tasks to them, correctly motivating them… and criticizing them! Imagine your discontent with a manager missing deadlines… You tell him about it, showing him convincingly what the missed deadlines are fraught with, but after your “therapy séance” nothing changes… It turns out that quality is above speed in his system of values by virtue of the instinct developed at the previous place of work, perfectionism inherited from his mother’s line, or the side effects of non-core education… He does not even guess that speed should be placed even above quality. Obviously, superfluous communications with this manager will hardly bring him out into the open and you’ll think again and again that he is just sabotaging the working process, while in reality he may not be that bad, maybe even ideal but for some different tasks. This can be recognized only through personal and rather deep communication.

In the example above the manager looks a sort of spineless student unable to ask several clarifying questions to clear up the priority of tasks. Meanwhile this is a manager supervising a certain part of the work process…

Indeed, the given example is somewhat exaggerated, but this was done deliberately… Do you think the manager will want to ask clarifying questions, change his inner world view or leave his comfort zone (prioritizing the “unknown” speed over the “well-known and beloved” quality) if his boss does not raise a finger to see the manager’s true motives which caused his failure? Will the employee bend over backwards to clear up the situation if the boss fails to see a human person in his employee and fails to explain him or her their tasks in the language s/he understands? Will a manager accept criticism from the boss who does not care for him/her? From the boss who will use general universal phrases to conduct an average weighted séance of managerial therapy for his manager, hoping for a certain positive effect? The situation can be further complicated by personal circumstances: suppose at the present moment the manager is in the process of divorce or has some health problem, or his/her favorite dog dies on the eve of the “managerial therapy”…. If the boss does not care much about the personal circumstances of his employee and speaks in an abrupt style because he has planned this talk for this day, believe me the employee won’t care about “clarifying questions” or other initiatives…

It’s extremely important to criticize at the “right time”, when a person has ample inner strength and is really ready to accept it. If you feel resistance, understatement or any other barriers do not criticize, but give support instead. On the one hand, this will allow you to keep in touch with the person and involved in his/her context and, on the other hand, you won’t fall out of his/her favor which is so important for building effective relations and feedback. You should agree that criticism is not perceived as something unbearable, when it is provided by a person we trust. And we usually trust people who are not indifferent, who are linked to us by the knowledge about ourselves, our past and our plans for the future.

Knowing a lot about a person, abiding in his/her context, you may use his/her life to give examples and provide feedback (A very specific example: how can feedback be given via a life example?) Explaining something on personal examples is a very effective way of working with criticism. By and large, this means “speaking about a person in his/her language”.

Quite often bosses take the position of ignoring, which they do not fully realize. It’s understandable: they have full hands and lack time to delve into personal upheavals or professional failures of line managers. What kind of guessing their individual “pin codes” are you talking about? They have to use general methods… without any anger and bias! Although anything would be better in this context than average-weighted ignoring or moving away from a conflict. Psychologists talk about a great existential chasm between a slap and a hit in the face. The slap is avoiding and ignoring. You are dismissive of a person, do not want to notice him/her or to tie yourself with him/her. “I do not care about you and I doubt your future in this company!” Contrary to a slap, the hit means recognizing the presence and weight, it’s a reciprocal action or responding to another’s action. Figuratively speaking, the hit is the giving act, the criticism, recognizing the person and providing feedback…

We instinctively opt for the «wounded”, “hurt” or “offended” position, rather than for the “growth” or “learning the lesson” position as we get feedback. This is as natural to us as defending ourselves from any type of danger. What are other recipes for the constructive perception of criticisms?

It’s important to begin criticizing a person in a moderate way. It is necessary to test the ground and make sure the person is capable to listen and learn lessons. At the moment the person starts listening to you, the volume of criticism can be enlarged. You must see openness and acceptance in your respondent. If they are present you can move ahead.

What are the acceptance criteria? How to make sure that a person understands and is ready to listen?

The body language....
To be continued!

Incidentally, I’ve come across various attitudes to criticism, various forms of its acceptance and unacceptance. But Russians stunned me more than anybody else in this respect. Most of them are irresponsive to criticism, however well-prepared the latter might be. It comes down to two favorite notions among Russians: “accidentally” and “fate”. They tend to pass the buck and make any appeals to responsibility impossible… Both notions are used in the negative context. Thus, Russians use the “fate” in relating some cases, when they tried to achieve success but failed. “We were destined to fail,” they argue. “Accidentally” is used, when they do not even try and still get into trouble, as if they had nothing to do with it. A peculiar feature of these two examples is that there is no responsibility here. Moreover, both cases are perceived as a hidden penance that could not be averted and so the only way out is to accept it and come to terms with it. But it’s clear as day that there can be no penance imposed upon a person; this can only be a result of certain action or inaction. If I cut cucumbers, tomatoes and greens I can make only a salad, but not a steak which I may want more, but have no resources or stuff to cook it at present…

A sequence of certain actions leads to a certain result. If we start thinking in these terms and along these lines, then we feel responsibility, accidental occurrences and fateful accidents vanish, and it is possible to provide feedback, appealing to the achieved result and its quality analysis. A special challenge for the top manager working with employees who come up with accidental results and hidden penances is showing the manager direct dependence of the result on the action taken, to expose the manager’s responsibility for this result. This is almost the key factor of building further effective communication, not just feedback. 

* Recognition, acceptance, security are the essential factors of subsequent reception of critical information. Only when a person is open, feeling that nobody is going to crush him or her, a “mirror” can be set up in front of him/her. Make sure the person you are going to criticize feels safe and secure. 
* It is crucial that criticism is given at the “right time”, when a person is ready indeed to accept it. If you feel resistance, understatement or some other barriers, do not criticize but try to be supportive. Be present in the lives of your employees, to know their “current context”.
* The main symptom of your readiness to provide constructive feedback is the strength of your desire to criticize. The stronger this desire is, the less benefit your criticism brings, and vice versa. If you want to say something, better keep silent. If you do not feel like saying it, make sure you say it!
* Ask the key question: do you criticize just to rid yourself of anger, to assert yourself at other’s expense, or you criticize for the benefit of your respondent, to put the latter in a better position, environment, etc. Keep in mind that criticism is a gift, an act of altruism.
Order the book for 15$
Price does include international shipping cost
Send review
Your review *