Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 50;   December 16, 2009: A Critique of Criticism: II

A Critique of Criticism: II

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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 inflicting pain?
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, in a charcoal portrait by artist Eastman Johnson

Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, in a charcoal portrait by artist Eastman Johnson. Emerson was long a mentor to the younger Henry David Thoreau. While Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, from July, 1845 through September, 1847, he completed work on the first draft of what would be his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers. In a November 14, 1847, letter to Emerson, Thoreau reports on his lack of progress in securing a publisher, and his indifference to pursuing the matter further. Emerson, in Manchester, England, at the time, replied on December 2 that the book would be of interest to many, and advised Thoreau to self-publish it "at once." Emerson's advice can be viewed as a critique of Thoreau's publishing plans, given privately, and with honest respect. Thoreau accepted Emerson's well-intentioned but quite mistaken advice, leading to a mountain of debt, and Thoreau's now-famous quip, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."

Not all criticism is valid, even when the giver is more experienced, an acknowledged expert, and widely respected.

The portrait is part of the personal collection of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, courtesy Wikipedia.

In Part I of this exploration of criticism, we explored guidelines for criticism that arise from considering the needs and responses of giver and receiver. In this Part II, we explore the content of criticism messages, and the settings in which we deliver those messages.

Style is part of content
For criticism, delivery style is part of content, because we experience style as part of the message — and that's often the intention of the giver. Word choice, voice tone, gestures, and posture all contribute to style. A hostile, attacking style invites rejection of the message and possible retaliation.
Choose a style that's respectful, humble, and kind. Instead of coercing the receiver, invite the receiver to engage in joint exploration.
Focus on actions or beliefs
When the content of the criticism includes an evaluation of the receiver as a person, rather than the receiver's actions or beliefs, the receiver can experience pain. Receivers cannot change who they are; they can only change beliefs or make different choices in the future. Criticizing someone as a person invites retaliation and degrades relationships.
Strive for clarity about the consequences of actions and beliefs. Focus on mutual understanding of those consequences. Once consequences are clear, the receiver can make better-informed choices in the future.
Understand the root cause
If the cause of the problem lies outside the realm of individual choice, criticizing the choices of individuals won't help. Very little good comes of offering criticism of actions or beliefs to someone who was operating well within organizational norms.
Be certain that you understand the root cause of the problem. If what you have to say applies to many people, consider the possibility that the system is the cause, rather than the people in it. Consider individual interventions only after you eliminate systemic causes.
Seek a private setting
Public If the message for the receiver
could apply equally to others
as well, the receiver can
feel persecuted and
unfairly attacked
criticism can humiliate receivers. Humiliation limits the receiver's ability to calmly consider the message, which is a prerequisite for change. Whether humiliation is a goal or a tactic, rethink the entire endeavor.
Privacy is essential. If privacy is rare in the ordinary course of events, do something extraordinary to obtain privacy.
Be equitable
If the message for the receiver could apply equally to others as well, the receiver can feel persecuted and unfairly attacked. Focusing on just one individual, even to provide an example to others, rarely works.
People are free to talk with each other. If two people carry out similar actions, and you're reluctant to offer criticism to one, consider carefully before offering it to the other.

Criticizing is itself an action. If criticizing degrades the relationship between giver and receiver, or degrades other relationships, or propagates dissension with little benefit of any kind, its value is questionable — and open to criticism. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Avoid Responsibility  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A pair of kayakersTotally at Home
Getting home from work is far more than a question of transportation. What can we do to come home totally — to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
Benjamin FranklinPractice Positive Politics
Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van GoghVirtual Conflict
Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
Young chickensToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
The road to Cottonwood Pass, ColoradoBig, Complicated Problems
Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape.

See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Assembling an IKEA chairComing October 7: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.
Crows mobbing a red-tailed hawkAnd on October 14: Power Mobbing at Work
Mobbing is a form of group bullying of an individual — the target. Power mobbing occurs when a politically powerful person orchestrates the mobbing. It's a form of bullying that is especially harmful to the target and the organization. Available here and by RSS on October 14.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.