Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 15;   April 12, 2023: Commenting on the Work of Others

Commenting on the Work of Others


Commenting on the work of others risks damaging relationships. It can make future collaboration more difficult. To be safe when commenting about others' work, know the basic principles that distinguish appropriate and inappropriate comments.
A roaring lion, a metaphor for what can happen when comments on the work of another lead to toxic conflict

A roaring lion, a metaphor for what can happen when comments on the work of another lead to toxic conflict. The response of the person whose work is the topic of the exchange might seem disproportionate. But it can be less mysterious when one considers the roaring lion to represent that person's experience of the commentary.

Criticizing the work of others is risky. But we needn't go much beyond "Hi, how's it going" to run into trouble in some situations. A mere comment or innocent query about the work of others might be enough to light the fire. Much has been said and written about how to frame "constructive criticism," including previous posts of my own. [Indeed 2023] [MyHub 2022] I'm certain all these writings have helped some people, but to widen the circle, I'm taking a different approach in this post. This post is written as a field manual for those who want to inflict pain on others by commenting on their work.

When considering how destructive criticism causes pain, clarity can facilitate insight. That insight is valuable to both the giver and receiver of destructive criticism, even when destructiveness is unintentional. And in this approach there's little risk of adding to the toolkits of those intent on malice, because they're already way ahead of anything you or I can imagine. Let's get to it.

Comments and questions about their work

The comments and questions most likely to feel like criticisms are those related to properties of the work that the authors of the work are unable to change. Choose something that might have been decided earlier in the development or design process, but which is so fundamental that changing it now is infeasible. Even better, choose something that was forced on the authors by Senior Management, over the authors' strong objections. It's difficult to find something more irritating than criticizing someone's work on the basis of the errors of their managers.

Even innocent questions can be inflammatory if you structure them right. Asking about the work in a way that attacks the work's authors is the key. For example, consider the question, "I don't understand how to change the name of a task. Can you explain that for me?" Because this question focuses on the state of mind of the questioner, it's relatively non-hostile. It's even a bit self-deprecating. To give it a better chance of seeming to be a hostile criticism, ask it this way: "How do you change the name of a task?" Even better: "Changing the name of a task is very confusing. How is that done?"

Comments about your own work or experience

One Condescension is an indispensable tool of
those intent on inflicting insults on others
indispensable tool of those intent on inflicting insults on others is condescension. For example, instead of asking how to rename a task, try: "When we created the Tangerine System, we had a much simpler task-renaming protocol. Why on earth didn't you use that?" But it isn't necessary to be as openly rude as that. A more devious approach also works: "How would you compare your task-renaming protocol to the much simpler one in the Tangerine System?"

The general principle is simple. Construct your comments in the form, "Unlike you, I'm smart enough to avoid the problem of X." Alternatively, for variety, try "Your approach has problems with X, but when I had a similar task, I exploited X to create a perfect solution."

Providing advice or information unbidden

Advice is welcome when it's requested. But absent a request, advice — even sound advice — is often resented. That's the fundamental principle underlying this third tactic for inflicting pain by commenting on the work of others. Don't offer advice — give it. Don't wait for permission to provide advice. Don't wait for a request for advice. Jump straight to the advice. If possible, advise the authors of the work to do something you know they previously rejected. Even better: advise them to do something they proposed but which was rejected by higher authority. Or advise them to do something that violates the law (Human or Natural). Use the old adage, "If you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs." After all, it's their career on the line, not yours.

Last words

All of the above techniques can be effective in many situations. But they all have a better chance of inflicting pain and insult when you execute them in a public setting. The more people present — and the more politically powerful they are — the more negative is the effect. Go to top Top  Next issue: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: VI  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!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Indeed 2023]
Indeed Editorial Team,"Steps to Handle Criticism at Work", Indeed Career Guide, March 10, 2023. Available here. Retrieved 27 March 2023. Back
[MyHub 2022]
MyHub Blog,"Strategies For Handling Destructive Criticism In The Workplace," February 17, 2022. Available here. Retrieved 27 March 2023. Back

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upComing April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
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Recognizing just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can reduce the incidence of problems. Here is Part 2 of a collection of antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure, emphasizing those that depend on content. Available here and by RSS on May 1.

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