Say Nothing but That Which Serves a Good Purpose

“Criticism should not be querulous and wasting, all knife and root-puller, but guiding, instructive, inspiring.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you’d like to make a major, powerful change in the way your team interacts, get them to agree to the following experiment.

The Game: For a certain period of time (a month works well), everyone is prohibited from saying anything negative. All comments and questions, however urgent or important, are to be posed in a positive way.

The Rules: If a person cannot find a positive way to make his point, he cannot say anything at all. Couching a criticism in a positive statement does not make it positive. The deciding factor, when there is doubt, is how it makes the recipient of the comment feel. If it stings — however nicely it is said — it is deemed negative.

The Penalties: Every time a negative comment is made, the perpetrator must donate $5 to a common pot. At the end of the time period, all the money is counted and given to charity.

Marshall Thurber, a partner in a large San Francisco real-estate firm, did a similar thing with his employees. He began during the company’s weekly Monday meeting by reading a page from a book about the life of Rolling Thunder, an American Indian medicine man.

“He [Rolling Thunder] said that people have to be responsible for their thoughts, so they have to learn to control them. It may not be easy, but it can be done. First of all, if we don’t want to think certain things, we don’t say them. We don’t have to eat everything we see, and we don’t have to say everything we are thinking. So we begin by watching our words and speaking with good purpose only.”

According to the rules Thurber’s employees went by, anyone observed speaking with other than a good purpose had to put $2 in a money bowl. The game had a “transforming” effect on his entire office, Thurber later reported. Nothing he did before or since, he said, had such a powerful impact.

Normally, I wouldn’t promote an idea like Thurber’s — but it ties in with something I learned from an experience I had with my own staff. About two years ago, in an effort to streamline the review-and-feedback process for a seminar on copywriting, I invented a discipline for reviewing and providing criticism for student submissions. Everyone in the review group (there were around six people) was allowed to rate each selection on a scale of 1 to 4 but was prohibited from explaining or justifying his score. The scores were averaged to come up with a group rating.

If the group rating exceeded 3, the work was deemed good and nothing further needed to be done on it. If it was 3 or less, we would discuss the piece. There was a hitch, however. You could not make any sort of criticism. You could only offer positive, concrete suggestions. You couldn’t say, for example, “The first line is kind of weak and would be stronger if it could be more specific.” Instead, you’d have to say, “I’d replace the first sentence with the following . . .” — and then provide the copy yourself. The rest of the group then rated that copy as being better than, worse than, or the same as the original.

This system has worked beyond my expectations. Not only has it cut the time it used to take to do reviews by more than half, it has also made it immensely easier for the writer to receive the criticism. As an added bonus, the copy suggestions make the work much, much better.

I’m not averse to getting tough on copy or on people when the need arises. But because of this experience, I’m beginning to realize that negative feedback is almost always a blunt and damaging tool. You’ll usually do much better with carefully chosen words of support or alternative suggestions.