7 Ways to Improve Your Ability to Deliver Criticism

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

People Do Actually Want Feedback

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill

We often hear sound bites about people not wanting criticism or that employees aren’t open enough to feedback. But study after study shows this to be untrue.

Negative Feedback Isn’t Negative

We’re all very good at developing mental worst-case scenarios and then convincing ourselves that it’s an inevitability. So when most people consider giving corrective feedback, they often picture soap-opera style confrontations and relationship-destroying arguments.

Don’t Overcomplicate Things

I once knew a manager whose feedback method was to tell elaborate stories. They’d end with some convoluted moral that represented the feedback he wanted to give to his employees. Like some kind of deranged Aesop, the guy was constantly pontificating obtuse fables that no one understood.

Establish a Shared Purpose

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” — Abraham Lincoln

No one like used car salesmen. Even used car salesmen don’t like them.

Agree on the Facts, then discuss the Story

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the chagrin of climate change deniers everywhere.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

State the expectation. Then state the facts of what happened. And let the other person explain why there’s a difference. It’s not complicated, but it’s surprising how many people fail to do it.

Discuss Behaviors, Not People

“The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.” — Peter Sheahan, CEO of ChangeLabs

The purpose of corrective feedback is never to shame someone into compliance. When someone feels ashamed, they’re more likely to disengage and withdraw from future situations. Or become defensive and blame others for their behaviors. Which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish.

Don’t Take Ownership

“Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman

“People who offer great advice understand that their goal is to help someone on their unique journey. People who offer bad advice are trying to relive their old glories.”

Feedback is Everyone’s Responsibility

“The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” — Wole Soyinka

With regards to personnel development, there are only three types of companies.

  1. It’s much easier to correct a minor issue than a major one. So once you see something, say something.
  2. The only negative feedback is feedback that doesn’t support future improvement.
  3. If you cannot think of a way to give your criticism so that it supports future improvement, then keep it to yourself until you can.
  4. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  5. First agree on the facts. Then discuss the impacts.
  6. Focus on the behaviors and what someone did rather than what type of person you imagine him or her to be.
  7. People are much more committed to a solution if they own it.



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Jake Wilder

Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.