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    How constructive criticism helps us thrive

    July 26, 2016 by Alison Hill

    So much of what we do at work, from giving and receiving performance reviews to learning to be a leader and coach, rests on being able to give and receive feedback. Although it can be scary, people actually thrive on criticism when it is constructive.

    Good feedback is the quickest way to learn do things better and to change our behaviour. Yet we fear and avoid it, for good reasons to do with the way the human mind works. We find it threatening both to give and to receive criticism. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    A colleague recently participated in a writing workshop and told me how much she had benefited from what others had said about the work she’d presented. ‘Well you’re good, so of course they would say so,’ I told her. ‘No, it was when they told me the things I hadn’t done well that I really learnt something’, she said.  ‘It hurt, and some of the group were pretty harsh, yet when I thought about it later, I was grateful. I reworked my story and it was a lot better.’ Then she told me how hard it had been to give constructive criticism, especially to people she didn’t like much or when she felt the work had few redeeming features.

    I reminded her about using the ‘sandwich’ method we’d learnt in parenting classes: positioning a slice of negative criticism ‘cheese’ between two pieces of positive feedback ‘bread’. ‘I did that, and I felt like a fake’, she told me. ‘I could see they were just waiting for me to get to the bad bit, and didn’t really hear the good news. I was uncomfortable because I knew I still had to say that their dialogue was unnatural and their grammar was all wrong, and my unease made them uncomfortable too.’ It seemed the conventional wisdom wasn’t working.

    She then shared with me how the group had agreed to a better method after that first awkward session. They decided to be transparent about how constructive feedback would be given, and all agreed to follow a process. My friend described how much better she felt about giving and receiving feedback when the emphasis shifted to making shared, informed choices about how to improve. Of course, sharing creative writing in a group setting is not quite the same as having a one-on-one conversation about workplace performance, but the principles still apply.

    Giving criticism: the criticism sandwich v the transparent approach

    Instead of: ‘The report is well written and interesting. However, there’s not enough detail. You’d better find the figures and add them in before the presentation at three. I love the layout though’.

    Describe what you see, and agree on the facts

    ‘I’m concerned about the lack of detail in this report and how that might have affected our business case. I’d like to go through some details and see if you see the same things. I’m open to the possibility that I’ve missed something or that I’ve not explained what’s needed. Once we agree on the size of the problem, let’s decide what we can do.

    Decide how the work could be improved

    ‘So you agree there should be more data and explained that you needed more time to do the research. I’ll have Tom cover your client calls for today and you will find the data and add it to the report before the presentation.’

    Commit to implementing the feedback where appropriate and sharing the results

    You’ll get the revised report to me by two, so that I can check the figures. Next time I’ll be more realistic with timeframes and you’ll be clearer about your process and ask for help if you need it, so there are no last-minute surprises in future.’

    How did implementing this transparent approach work in my colleague’s writing workshop? And how can we apply what she has learnt to the workplace?

    She now feels more genuine in the feedback she gives, and less defensive about receiving it in return. The group as a whole feels confident and comfortable about sharing the good and the bad aspects of each other’s work. She’s preparing her manuscript for a publisher – a step she said she would never have taken without the constructive and transparent criticism of her peers.

    Managers have to give criticism regularly, and it can be tough. Employees are bound to receive it, and in a healthy workplace giving and receiving feedback from peers can present growth opportunities too. Practicing good feedback techniques will stand us in good stead no matter where we are. So describe what you see, negotiate a mutual solution and commit to implementing good feedback.


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