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Delivering Constructive Criticism: A Critical Skill for Creating Positive Workplace Culture



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


At some point, all organizations, big or small, are faced with the need to provide constructive criticism or feedback to team members or stakeholders. While most would prefer to focus on organizational and team member strengths, growth often comes from looking at organizational and individual weaknesses. In turn, the ability to recognize and discuss both strengths and weaknesses allows organizations and individuals the opportunity to recognize and capitalize on strategies that facilitate growth. The ability to effectively deliver constructive criticism or feedback, as well as to gage how this feedback is received, allows failure to be reframed into a teaching moment that can facilitate creative thinking and problem solving. While negative feedback marks a failure, constructive criticism often provides an opportunity for personal and organization growth. If constructive criticism is delivered in a manner that can be understood and accepted as valid and relevant, this feedback can have a positive outcome for both the organization and individual receiving the constructive criticism.


In order for constructive criticism to be beneficial and achieve the best organizational outcomes, the feedback needs to be perceived as constructive. To achieve this common organizational goal, constructive criticism is best received from someone that has established a positive, respect-worthy relationship with the individual receiving the constructive criticism. The message of constructive criticism or feedback should be well-considered and provide specific guidance on how to achieve targeted goals. The individual delivering constructive criticism or feedback also needs to be cognizant of the emotional response of the person receiving that feedback. Will constructive criticism be internalized as a failure, or as an opportunity to learn and grow?


Historically, organizations have focused on strategies to deliver constructive criticism or feedback such as gathering facts, practicing tone, and creating an action plan, as well as emphasizing the need to praise in public and criticize in private. However, emerging research in the area of feedback is discovering the importance of guiding individuals that receive constructive criticism on how to best utilize and implement that feedback. While not initially intuitive, it appears that individuals are most likely to remember constructive criticism, and actually implement changes based on that feedback, when constructive criticism is provided in the form of evaluative feedback, i.e., feedback about a prior task or event that has been completed, rather than directive feedback, i.e., feedback on how to improve in the future. Consequently, it appears that one of the critical skills of delivering constructive criticism is ensuring that those delivering it know how to plan out, prepare for, and provide feedback so that it is genuinely useful to those receiving it.


Although organizations or individuals often believe constructive criticism or feedback will be easily remembered, and as such, readily implemented, this might not actually be the case. Instead of assuming constructive criticism or feedback will be remembered, organizations would be better served by developing a system that encourages the individual receiving constructive criticism to create an achievable action plan. For example, helping team members keep a record of the feedback they receive facilitates identifying the organization’s or individual’s strengths and weaknesses. This in turn would help the organization and the individual develop and implement achievable action plans based on received feedback, which could then be tracked and monitored for progress.


One of the most common organizational strategies used when delivering constructive criticism is the “feedback sandwich,” in which constructive criticism or feedback is “sandwiched” in a specific sequence between the initial and final praise statements. However, one recent study by Bottini and Gillis (2021) suggests that the interpersonal skills and empathy of the individual delivering constructive criticism might be more important than if and how praise is delivered along with constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is best received when delivered by individuals who are empathetic and genuine. Research notes that performance improvement and other positive outcomes were also more often achieved when constructive criticism was perceived to be credible and relevant. Further, the accessibility of organizational leaders or mentors is important. Better outcomes resulted from regular check-ins to help monitor and implement change after the constructive criticism or feedback was delivered.


Consequently, it is clearly beneficial for organizations to train their leadership in the “soft skills” that foster the development of positive relationships and trust in conjunction with constructive criticism strategies. Organizations that actively create the environment necessary for effectively delivering constructive criticism in turn lay the foundation for a positive workplace culture—a workplace culture that will ultimately result in increased organizational and individual productivity, as well as employee retention.



Dr. Tracy Johnston is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, a Nationally Certified Counselor, a Certified Divorce Mediator, a Conflict Resolution Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. She has spent her professional career as a private practice psychotherapist who focuses on helping individuals and families gain the communication and conflict resolution skills that they need to achieve personal, parenting and professional success with less conflict and greater joy.



References.


Carlton J. Fong, Diane L. Schallert, Kyle M. Williams, Zachary H. Williamson, Jayce R. Warner, Shengjie Lin, Young Won Kim (2018). When feedback signals failure but offers hope for improvement: A process model of constructive criticism, Thinking Skills and Creativity, 30, 42-53, ISSN 1871-1871, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2018.02.014.


Nash RA, Winstone NE, Gregory SEA, Papps E. (xx) A memory advantage for past-oriented over future-oriented performance feedback. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2018 Dec;44(12):1864-1879. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000549. Epub 2018 Mar 5. PMID: 29504785.


Summer Bottini & Jennifer Gillis, (2021). A comparison of the feedback sandwich, constructive-positive feedback, and within session feedback for training preference assessment implementation, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 41:1, 83-93, DOI: 10.1080/01608061.2020.1862019

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