Dont Sugarcoat Your Criticism


“We are all jellyfish, too pitiful and too afraid of being disliked to be honest.” – May Sarton (“Monday, January 19th,” The House by the Sea: A Journal, 1977)

In Message #745 (“For Best Results, Make  Your Performance Reviews Frank, Positive, and Specific”), I talked about why you shouldn’t “polish the truth” when giving a performance review to an employee. Well, the same advice holds true whenever you’re in any situation in which you must criticize (constructively, of course) anyone or anything.

The most common cover-up is the “great … but” ploy. (“You did a great job with the conference, but I was disappointed with the attendance.”) This kind of message doesn’t work, because it’s insincere. The speaker really wants to talk about the poor attendance, not the good stuff, and the listener knows it.

If you want to make your criticism balanced and useful, start by really meaning the good stuff. Say, for example, “You did a great job with the conference. The selection of speakers was superb. I especially liked the keynote speaker. Congratulations on landing him. I also liked the venue. It was just the right atmosphere for the program. Are you thinking of using it again next year?”

Do that until you have happily exhausted all the good stuff. Then you will find it much easier to introduce the negative comment: “With all that went well, it’s a shame the attendance wasn’t better. What are your thoughts about improving attendance next year?”