Personal Business

The case for criticism

The key is to avoid harmful remarks—those meant simply to hurt, embarrass or get revenge

Ross Laver September 16 1996
Personal Business

The case for criticism

The key is to avoid harmful remarks—those meant simply to hurt, embarrass or get revenge

Ross Laver September 16 1996

The case for criticism

Personal Business

The key is to avoid harmful remarks—those meant simply to hurt, embarrass or get revenge

Ross Laver

These days, the working world is full of business books and management experts preaching the virtues of teamwork and consensus-building. In training programs and at company retreats, supervisors are exhorted to shed the old hierarchical command-and-control philosophy and learn how to be more sensitive to their employees’ needs.

Unfortunately, the current fixation on personal fulfilment has made criticism something of a four-letter word. Instead, managers throw around mushy euphemisms like “positive feedback” and “constructive evaluation”—catchphrases that merely camouflage the boss’s true feelings.

Perhaps that’s why Deborah Bright’s advice strikes so many people as refreshing. Bright, a New York City-based consultant who has designed courses on anger and stress management for police, corporate executives and professional athletes, believes that criticism is an essential tool in creating improved performance and productivity. Twice this year, she has run seminars on how to give and take criticism at the Canadian Management Centre, a nonprofit training facility in Toronto.

In her book, The Official Criticism Manual, Bright debunks many of the myths that surround criticism in the workplace. Examples:

• Criticism cannot be used to motivate employees.

Many managers act as though the only way to motivate their staff is through frequent praise. The result, Bright says, is that the praise loses value and means little to the people who are receiving it. Alternatively, the recipients may develop oversized egos and become difficult to deal with. A good manager balances praise with criticism, pointing out the negative aspects of an employee’s actions and thereby teaching the person how to do things better. The key is to avoid harmful criticism—that which is meant simply to hurt, embarrass, destroy or get revenge.

• It’s easier to dish out criticism than to take it.

According to Bright, delivering effective criticism is every bit as tough as receiving it. In fact, many managers are reluctant to point out shortcomings because they fear hurting their employees’ feelings or are worried that the criticism will be misinterpreted. Used properly to bring about a change in behavior, she says, criticism is a skill that requires careful preparation as well as an understanding of mutual and individual goals.

• The best approach is to begin and end on a positive note.

Bright calls this the “Oreo cookie” method, the theory being that people are more willing to accept criticism when it is sandwiched between positive statements. Employees, however, can usually see through such devices. Worse, the receiver may be distracted by the praise and miss all or part of the message. To avoid confusion, it’s usually better to come straight to the point.

• Use “we,” not “you.”

Management training programs, Bright says, often counsel supervisors to avoid confrontations by referring to “we” rather than “you”—as in the oft-heard phrase “We have a problem.” But it’s a misleading approach, since it is the receiver who is being asked to change his or her behavior. To maintain credibility, be direct.

• Employees dislike criticism.

This may be the biggest myth of all. Although workers often resist criticism and become defensive because of the way negative messages are delivered, that does not mean feedback is unwelcome. On the contrary, employees invariably want and expect their bosses to communicate openly—starting with a clear definition of their work assignments. After that, it is the boss’s responsibility to tell people when they are doing a good job and what they are doing wrong. Otherwise, the work environment soon becomes clouded with unspoken assumptions and hidden agendas—problems that in the long run are far more destructive than honest, well-intended criticism.