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Constructive Criticism

November 26, 2009

“You are doing a great job, but …….” That’s a standard opening line to something called “constructive criticism”. With nothing but the best of intentions, “constructive criticism” is regularly administered to friends, family and employees. While it is willingly administered, it is rarely well received.

“Constructive criticism” is an oxymoron. The words “constructive” and “criticism” are incompatible. Criticism rarely leads to anything constructive. Praise and positive reinforcement are significantly more effective in bringing about improved performance and positive changes in behavior.

The typical individual’s initial reaction to criticism, whether justified or not, is defensive. The natural tendency is to defend, rationalize or make excuses for their actions. Even in the best of circumstances, “constructive criticism” is rarely received with the enthusiasm with which it is offered.

Experienced managers know that evaluating performance and appraising employees of their performance is essential to good management. The key in administering performance evaluations is to get the benefits without incurring the damage. Reinforce the positive without getting a defensive reaction to the negative is the objective.

Critical comments have to be made and hopefully will lead to constructive future activity, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that the recipient of the remarks will initially see anything constructive about the criticism. Criticism is criticism and most of us don’t like it.

Given the fact that as managers it will be necessary to provide performance feed back which will sometimes be critical and that nobody enjoys receiving criticism, critical evaluations must be done painstakingly. How can you administer criticism in a constructive manner?

Brevity is part of the answer. Be direct and be brief. Don’t allow an uncomfortable conversation to be prolonged unnecessarily. Don’t allow problems to fester. Address problems promptly. Don’t attempt to camouflage your critical remarks as anything but what they are. A rose by any other name remains a rose. Criticism will always be regarded as such.

When poor performance requires criticism, be specific not general. There is little benefit to telling someone that they aren’t trying hard enough or that they lack initiative. For example, if an employee’s productivity is declining, identify the specific measures of productivity that you see declining and refrain from making any sweeping generalizations that may be resented. Focus on objective, measurable results, not on personality traits or characteristics.

The opportunity for improved performance resulting from critical or negative observations is dependent on the level of mutual trust and respect in a relationship. When an employee has a high level of confidence and feels secure in their relationship, they will be less likely to be defensive . Trust, confidence, and a sense of security are developed in a working relationship as a result of specific experiences over a period of time. Until that relationship is established, critical evaluations should be confined to a more formal appraisal process.

Every employee wants and is entitled to answers to three basic questions. What am I supposed to do? How well am I supposed to do it? And finally, how am I doing? Given the answers to these three questions, the opportunity exists for developing a healthy management system.

The answer to the first question, “What am I supposed to do?”, is the development of job descriptions. The second question, “How well am I supposed to do it?”, is answered by establishing and mutually agreeing to specific performance standards. Performance standards are the conditions that will exist when a job has been done satisfactorily.

When these first two questions have been satisfactorily answered, the final question, “How am I doing?”, can be objectively addressed. When actual performance has fallen short of the performance standards, good management requires that critical observations will need to be made. With those fair, relevant, and measurable standards having been previously established and agreed upon, an objective basis for your remarks is in place. You will have enhanced the possibilities for your remarks having a positive impact.

Positive reinforcement is more effective than “constructive criticism” in improving performance. When critical observations need to be shared, voice them in a supportive environment that will enhance the opportunity for constructive change.

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