Constructive Criticism or Crushing Clobber?


Managers have a tendency to devalue their employees with remarks they call constructive criticism. Giving and receiving feedback is a topic I talk about a lot, but clearly it needs to be revisited. Perhaps I can provide some slightly different insights. Take for example Sally CEO:

“Pete, you really looked stupid in there,” Sally CEO said as they were leaving the meeting. “When are you going to get it in your head that you’ve beaten that topic to death?”

Sally CEO probably thought she was giving Pete constructive criticism. What Sally was doing, however, was blasting him, putting him on the defensive, and virtually guaranteeing that he neither heard nor learned anything from her comment.

Unfortunately, bosses every day deliver far too many devastating remarks in the name of “constructive criticism.”

The obvious examples are easy to label and condemn, like my example here with Sally CEO. Few comments are this obvious, however. It’s the less egregious comments that the manager intends to be helpful but instead clobber a team member that can do the long-term damage. These remarks might be intended to be helpful but instead are experienced as not only destructive but also demotivating over time.

Of course, it also depends on your definition of constructive criticism. Some managers define constructive criticism as telling the employee off, giving her a good kick in the pants, etc. With that definition, then, Sally CEO was spot on in her delivery and method.

The problem is that with this definition of constructive criticism, learning derails by the harshness of the words. The words are destructive, so the criticism is, too. In such situations, instead of learning and being motivated to change, the employee’s fight or flight reaction is triggered. Then the brain empties of blood needed for the fight or flight (flowing to the large extremities) and nothing said at that moment is heard, let alone remembered.

Except, of course, for the pain. They do remember the lingering sense of humiliation, anger and frustration–all emotions virtually guaranteed to lessen productivity and heighten defensiveness in anybody.

I have a different definition of constructive criticism. It’s a process that involves careful delivery and consideration for the subject’s feelings while at the same time working to improve the outcome of the situation. Criticism is inherently negative, but constructive criticism balances the negative with the positive. Most of all, it is focused on the behavior, not the person.

Let’s take Sally CEO as a starting point. Sally would be wise to define the goal of her criticism. In this case, her goal is for Pete to drop the topic. Then she should decide how she could deliver her message in a way that motivates Pete instead of insults him. Maybe by choosing a strength that he has, which, in this case, is passion. Then using this positive trait as the basis for her comment, she can deliver a constructive coaching to help him use the positive attribute in a better way.

Here is how I would revise Sally CEO’s statement:

“Pete, I admire how you are passionate about this topic. Clearly you feel strongly about discussing it more. Unfortunately, we have reached resolution on this issue and need to move on. Can you help me with that?”

Now I am realistic enough to know that this could very well end in more discussion about why Pete feels the way he does. Rather than jump right back to insult, however, Sally would then use that time to continue to coach him about letting things go. Chances are if Sally were to use this method or a variation, this discussion will be the catalyst for that change she needs instead of the beginning of the end for Pete’s motivation at work.

Constructive criticism is the idea that you are coaching your team member away from the habit, method, or behavior that is detrimental to the team and their career–and toward behaviors that will enhance both. When used properly, it helps a person realize that they have room for improvement without feeling like a worthless failure, and helps shed light on a way to fix the problem. While all criticism has an element of sensitivity to it by its very nature, when delivered properly it can be far more beneficial than harmful in the long run.

It is important, however, that you define your goal for your criticism and use the proper delivery method to achieve it. Take it from me; clobbering is hardly ever effective—except for cave dwellers and mob bosses. And neither of those professions seems to have the kind of longevity we all seek in our careers.


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