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:
- Caught in the Crossfire
- You lead a company, a department, or a team. When two of your reports get caught up in a feud, what
do you do? Let them fight it out? Order them to stop? Fire them both? Here are some tips for making a peace.
- Recognizing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- "Never mind" can mean anything from "Excuse me, I'm sorry," to, "You lame idiot,
it's beyond you," and more. The former is apologetic and courteous. The latter is dismissive and
hurtful. We have dozens of verbal tactics for hurting each other dismissively. How can we recognize them?
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
- Ethical Debate at Work: I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad
decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate.
- Directed Attention Fatigue
- Humans have a limited capacity to concentrate attention on thought-intensive tasks. After a time, we
must rest and renew. Most brainwork jobs aren't designed with this in mind.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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