Some call it "feedback." Some call it "criticism." Some try to distinguish the two, with varying degrees of success, but that's a topic for another time. By whatever name, we usually deliver the message with good intentions. When the intentions are good, but the results aren't, receivers are hurt, and givers surprised. To guard against this possibility, people have developed a number of introductory safety phrases.
One safety phrase is, "I'd like to give you some constructive criticism." It's almost an incantation — the magic words that are supposed to protect us from hurt or hurting others. But safety phrases, like incantations, don't always work as intended.
To achieve a positive outcome, givers need more than safety phrases — empathy is essential. To help givers of feedback or criticism understand the receiver's experience, I offer this framework for thinking about the entire process. By examining criticism from four perspectives — giver, receiver, content, and setting — we can develop guidelines for making criticism more effective. Here is Part I of those guidelines, emphasizing the giver and receiver.
- Investigate thoroughly and without bias
- It's just possible that the giver lacks access to important information that renders the criticism irrelevant, wrong, or worse. Delivering criticism that's clearly mistaken damages the giver's credibility. More important, it can damage the relationship between giver and receiver, perhaps permanently.
- The basis of any criticism must be thorough investigation. Sometimes, thoroughness requires the receiver's active participation. And sometimes, because people tend to adjust their responses based on the identity of the investigator, an unbiased investigation is possible only if performed by someone other than the giver.
- "To thine own self be true"
- If the giver's behavior or Criticizing the actions of someone
else, while you continue to do
similar things regularly yourself,
will likely contribute to
hostility in the relationshipbeliefs are similar to those the giver is criticizing, the receiver might feel anger, outrage, or pain, even if the giver's message is valid. Hostile feelings follow, in part, because criticism carries an implicit message that the giver isn't subject to similar criticism.
- Criticizing the actions of someone else, while you continue to do similar things regularly yourself, will likely contribute to hostility in the relationship.
- Seek permission freely given
- If the receiver hasn't freely given the giver explicit or implicit permission to deliver criticism, then feelings of being attacked are likely. Even when permission has been given, the feeling of being attacked can come about if the permission wasn't given freely. For instance, accepting periodic performance reviews is actually a requirement of many jobs. The feeling of powerlessness in performance reviews comes about, in part, because performance reviews are mandatory.
- Delivering criticism without first gaining permission is unlikely to have a positive effect. Permission given under threat of employment termination, which is the context of most performance reviews, is not permission freely given. Permission sought and obtained in a public setting, where declining to give permission can be embarrassing or costly, probably is not permission freely given.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- Bemused Detachment
- Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our
responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing
comity by slowing down.
- A Critique of Criticism: II
- To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to,
and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of
- Biological Mimicry and Workplace Bullying
- When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently
act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right
time to act.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 15: Getting Value from Involuntary Seminars
- Whatever your organizational role, from time to time you might find yourself attending seminars or presentations involuntarily. The value you derive from these "opportunities" depends as much on you as on the presenter. Available here and by RSS on August 15.
- And on August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.