More On Criticism

“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” – Alice Roosevelt Longworth

I’m reading a newsletter on leadership that says since “no one likes to be told he’s wrong,” the shrewd executive will do everything he can to make his criticism indirect.

I’ve never figured out this subject completely, but it seems to me that your primary concern when you are criticizing someone should not be the other person’s feelings. That should be a concern — because you want your criticism to have an effect — but your main objective is to correct the problem, is it not? I also think there is a danger in pretending that the person you are correcting is right when he’s wrong. Don’t we all have to learn that sometimes we are wrong?

The problem arises when the criticism carries with it an unnecessary negative message, such as “You are incapable” or “Your job is in jeopardy.”

I’m hardly an expert in this area, but here are a few of the things I’ve found to be helpful when it comes time to criticize:

1. Try to generate some good feelings about the person you intend to criticize before you make the criticism. If you are harboring a bad feeling, it will come through. And there’s usually no reason for a bad feeling if all you want is to effect a positive change. When you make a criticism with the right intention — to help — it shows.

2. Always comment on the action or the issue, not on the person. (Actually, this isn’t entirely true. There is the very rare moment when you can make a personal criticism. But in 98% of the cases, you are much better off focusing on the problem.)

3. If it is an idea or suggestion you are criticizing, make sure you fully understand the idea or suggestion before you criticize it. A good way to do this is to ask for clarification before commenting. Rather than say, “You are wrong about such and such,” it is better to say, “Let me see if I have this right . . . .” This approach often gives the person a chance to figure out for himself what was wrong with his idea. And that’s exactly what you want him to do. Then you will not only have fixed the immediate problem (and in such a way that the individual “owns” the right answer), you also will have shown him how to review and criticize his next idea himself.

4. I’m not much of a believer in sandwiching criticism between layers of praise — it seems so obvious and phony — but I must admit that when I do it, it seems to work. I suppose the secret there is to make the praise honest.

Maybe none of this is new to you. But when you have a subject as important and difficult as criticism, it pays to go over it now and again.