7 Ways to Improve Your Ability to Deliver Criticism

People Want to be Around Those Who Help Them Grow

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

“The trouble with most of us, said Norman Vincent Peale, “is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” Yet while a certain percentage of the population is happy to reinforce the walls of their own echo chambers, Peale’s statement is a discredit to the vast majority of people.

While our initial reactions may too often be one of defensiveness, in my experience the most people do want to understand how they can get improve. And they recognize that feedback is a necessary part of that process.

Rarely do you meet someone who, upon realizing a mistake, wishes they could have stayed within their previous ignorance. And I have yet to find anyone who, once corrected, wishes they could have continued repeating that same mistake for years to come.

The problem, in fact, isn’t that people are unwilling to listen to criticism. The problem is that most criticism isn’t worth listening to.

“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.

People don’t have some genetic disease that keeps them from engaging in meaningful conversations. They want feedback. Because they want to improve.

In a recent study, 81% of employees who rated their manager poorly also noted that he or she did not provide sufficient feedback. In contrast, with employees that ranked their manager highly, the percentage that were dissatisfied with feedback dropped to 17%.

It’s this aspect — in the quality and quantity of corrective feedback — that often differentiates whether people consider their manage is effective or not. And just as top athletes look for the best coaches, top employees will always move into areas where they’ll receive the feedback they need to grow.

We can all remember times when we’ve been offered biting criticism that we took to heart. It may have knocked our ego down a couple pegs, but ultimately we were better for hearing it. And given the choice between getting corrective feedback and getting no feedback — the majority of us will choose the former.

So whenever you hear someone complaining about peoples’ general unwillingness to learn, the more likely case is that they’re using it to mask their own inability to offer worthwhile feedback.

The good news is, this is a much easier problem to solve.

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.

And as a result they hesitate. They put it off until it becomes too late. And they never actually provide that feedback until the problem becomes too big to ignore.

It’s easy to see how this can become a vicious circle. People don’t say something initially, thereby normalizing a poor behavior. And they struggle to address it the next time since they’ve previously allowed it.

But performance rarely gets better on its own. Which brings us to the main idea behind all corrective feedback.

Rule 1: It’s much easier to correct a minor issue than a major one. So once you see something, say something.

We’re in a much better position to do this when we’re engaged in the work. And we’re more likely to have this confrontation early when we have regular conversations in place. Performance discussions become the norm instead of the exception.

Yet too often we still hold back for fear of offending people. We assume that negative feedback will guarantee a negative reaction.

This mentality has to change. We need to stop seeing corrective feedback as negative feedback. Because for most people, it’s anything but.

If you ask people whether they’d prefer to receive praise on their success or insight into their struggles, most will choose to better understanding what they’re doing wrong. So while we tend to categorize this as negative feedback, it’s actually the communication that people view most positively. Whilst disingenuous positive feedback — that cheap atta-boy that’s thrown around for the sake of checking a box — is as welcome as a factchecker at a conservative political rally.

Rule 2: The only negative feedback is feedback that doesn’t support future improvement.

And the accompanying…

Rule 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.

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.

Too often, people over complicate the process of giving corrective feedback. It doesn’t require elaborate stories or some pop psychology analysis. Just a straightforward discussion with a few key points.

“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.

I don’t mean to generalize. I’m sure some of them are okay.

But in general they get a bad rap. Because no one ever trusts anything they say. And because no one looks good in checkered jackets.

The consummate used car salesman is out for himself and only himself. If we wind up with a lemon in the process, it’s no concern to him. His advice suits his purposes, but very rarely ours.

Too often, when people refuse to listen to feedback, it’s because they’re equating it with a similarly biased purpose.

Which isn’t very surprising. After all, no one wonders why you don’t take job advice from career academics.

So if we expect people to listen to our feedback, first we need to establish a sense of mutual purpose. We need to show people that our interests align with theirs.

When people realize we’re working towards a common goal, they understand that we care about their interests and values. And consequently they’re much more receptive to our input.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that’s easy to fake. Simply telling someone that you have their best interest at heart and spouting off vague platitudes without backing it up with actions doesn’t establish trust. No matter what that example in 2016 may have shown us.

To establish mutual purpose and trust we need to engage with people, ask about their interests, and actively listen to their concerns.

In short, we need to show them that we care about them as well as the job. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t expect people to trust our motives.

Rule 4: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

So take an interest in people. Understand their values and how they influence their goals and aspirations. Ask questions and take the time to learn where they want to go. Not until then should we expect their trust.

“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 often the linchpin behind the argument — they represent the foundation of belief. So until everyone can agree on the facts, there’s little hope of having a meaningful conversation.

And they’re the least controversial. So it’s always easier to start by establishing and agreeing on the facts. As John Adams described them,

“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.

Yet facts alone are rarely enough to warrant corrective feedback. It’s the facts plus the impact that necessitates your intervention.

So once facts are agreed upon, explain the consequences of their behavior. The other person needs to understand the impact they had on you and the organization as a whole. It’s this knowledge that will encourage people to make changes going forward.

There’s no need to pile it on. While we often feel we need to repeat ourselves to make our point, we only succeed in coming across as a condescending jerk. Make your point and move on.

Rule 5: First agree on the facts. Then discuss the impacts.

“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.

Brene Brown described it perfectly in Daring Greatly with “Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am bad.”

Guilt encourages us to compare our behavior against our own performance standards and recognize the difference. This cognitive dissonance is what motivates us to make meaningful change.

Shame, on the other hand, threatens our very identity. Which will often cause disengagement and defensiveness — neither of which are productive towards changing future behaviors.

You’re not a psychiatrist. Or at least the odds are likely that you’re not a psychiatrist. So you’re also likely not qualified to diagnose someone’s motives and analyze them on a personal level.

Rule 6: Focus on the behaviors and what someone did rather than what type of person you imagine him or her to be.

As Frank A. Clark put it, “Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”

“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

We’ve established a mutual purpose, discussed the facts, talked about the impacts, and highlighted problematic behaviors without insulting anyone’s identity. Yet the entire point was to elicit a behavior change going forward.

So it’s not over until you agree on what they’ll do differently next time.

Which often requires one of the most difficult activities for any of us — keeping our mouths shut.

We’ve all been in situations where someone prescribed our actions for us. And we likely nodded along, agreeing to their suggestions in theory. But as time went by, we weren’t committed to that solution. Because it was theirs, not ours.

The same principle applies when we want people to change behavior going forward. It’s their issue and it needs to be their solution. Otherwise we’re just setting ourselves up for a repeat discussion down the road.

Rule 7: People are much more committed to a solution if they own it.

So close your mouth and let them suggest a plan of action. Feel free to ask open-ended questions and help them develop ideas, but whenever possible let them come up with a solution that will work for them. As founder and start-up investor Mike Maples Jr. told Tim Ferriss,

“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.”

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

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

Bad companies ignore poor performing employees. Management sticks them in a corner where they can do the least amount of damage. Or transfers them around like a bad penny, never addressing the issue.

In good companies, managers eventually take on these problems. They’re engaged with the work and hold regular discussions to recognize and correct issues as they see them.

But in great companies, this responsibility is shared by everyone in the organization. Everyone holds everyone else accountable. All employees, regardless of position or level, offer feedback to encourage growth and development from their coworkers.

Peer-provided feedback is both the most effective and most under-utilized performance improvement tool available to organizations. While management only sees a fraction of an employee’s actions, peers work more closely and more often with their coworkers. As a result, they’re in a much better position to provide immediate feedback and stimulate growth.

The only barrier is helping people feel comfortable in this role. And giving them a couple rules to keep in mind throughout the process.

  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.

Top talent will always congregate around those who will make them better. People are looking for these opportunities to improve. Don’t hesitate to help them do it.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I suppose it would be hypocritical to end this without an invitation for any corrective criticism you may have, so please feel free to share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.



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

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Jake Wilder

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