The 11 Commandments for Giving Criticism

sad-face-Hendrie Weisinger“When I give criticism, I feel______.”

If you’re like most people, you complete the aforementioned sentence with “anxious, hesitant, embarrassed, and fearful” or other words that communicate the same discomfort. Indeed, few of us tell our partner or friend, “Hey, I can’t wait to criticize my boss or client.”

For most, giving criticism often arouses our recipient’s anger, anxiety, and tears. At work, it often sours relationships with the boss, colleagues, staff and clients too. At home, there is abundant research indicating mismanaged criticism is a prelude to an unhappy marriage and contributes to poor parenting skills.

Yet, there is an equal amount of research indicating giving and taking criticism productively is a key attribute of successful individuals, marriages and organizations. Here, criticism is used as a tool to promote intimacy, enhance performance and develop positive relationships.

Amongst critics, it is agreed upon they criticize by the rules to ensure the intent of their criticism-to serve its recipient, is met. Since checklists are proven to be valuable tools for establishing and enhancing effective behavior, I’ll offer you my checklist of criticism rules that are steeped in the ancestry of criticism.

There is one caveat. Master critic, Henry James, in his version of The Art of Criticism, purports a great critic has as much human nature as of erudition and knows how to make them go hand in hand. In other words, your skill for applying the art of criticism will depend on how well you can package, customize and individualize the criticism rules to the specific criticism encounter. The more ways you can do it, the better critic you will become.

1. Perceive criticism as great critics do. Giving criticism productively starts with aligning your beliefs to the historical purpose of criticism – to communicate, educate and motivate to improve. See criticism as an opportunity to help someone do better.

2.  Manage your emotions: Criticism communicated with anger and disappointment lessens the positive impact of your message. Before you criticize, calm yourself by using productive self- statements: “Stay focused, breath slowly” and remembering your positive intent.

 3.  Be Strategic: “How can I communicate this information so he/she will be receptive?” is first. Next, anticipate their reaction and how you will respond if he/she becomes angry, silent, retaliatory, cries or flatly denies what you say. There is no right way to give criticism, only different ways. Think of a criticism you have to give – can you communicate it three different ways?

4. Protect self -esteem: Your coworker might be stubborn, but calling or thinking of him as pigheaded will not help. Avoid destructive labels, and make criticism a matter of differences, not a right-wrong issue; the latter creates power struggles.

5. Leverage Timing: “Is this the time to offer my “evaluation?” There is a time and a place for everything and you can phrase criticism perfectly but if the timing is off, all is for naught. Do you criticize someone publicly or privately, and when would you make exceptions?

6. Be Improvement-oriented: You can’t change the past so stop telling him or her what they did wrong; it will only evoke defensiveness. Focus on how results/project/behavior can be improved by emphasizing future performance: “Next time you give a presentation, leave more time for questions.”

7. Remember the merits without the but : Criticism is an evaluation of merits and demerits, not merits but demerits. The word but negates, as in “You are doing great but…. Better: “Here are some ways the report can be even better… and… here are the parts that are really good.”  Remembering the merits also helps both parties keep criticism in perspective.

8. Acknowledge your subjectivity. Your criticism is not a fact nor should it sound like an accusation: “Your work is sloppy” is countered with, “that’s your opinion,” and so it is. So take responsibility for your thoughts and minimize defensiveness. “In my opinion… I think… This is how it looks to me,” are non-accusatory and help make recipients curious to hear your thoughts.  Your work is sloppy would be better communicated as, “I think you can make your work a lot better.”

 9.  Put motivation into your criticism. “Work hard so I can get my promotion “is surly not going to have motivational impact. People change for themselves. Before you criticize, “How is this going to help my recipient? Are there tangible incentives-raise, promotion, or non-tangible incentives such as recognition or group inclusion?” If one incentive doesn’t work, try another, What if there are no incentives? How do you motivate the unmotivated?

 10.  Know your criterion. Avoid criticism conflict by identifying, clarifying, and communicating the criteria you use for formulating your criticisms. People use different criterions to evaluate the same work, and often interpret the same criterion differently. Can you really articulate the difference between a “4” and a “5”? Is everyone using the same criteria? Is my criterion realistic and when does it change? Is your staff in-sync on criterions?

 11.  Reinforce, trouble shoot, back to being strategic. When you note a positive response to your criticism, make sure you support the efforts by offering praise: “Thank you for being open to what I have to say,” “Hey, I see you are really doing better… Great!” If you are not getting the results, step back, look at how you are presenting the criticism, and try a different approach… there is always an option!

Practice the 11 commandments when giving criticism and the positive results you attain will make you feel giving criticism is a God sent skill!



Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D. is a celebrated and influential psychologist, pioneer in the field of pressure management, the originator of criticism training and the author of two New York Times bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 Companies and government agencies and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT. His work has been featured several times in The New York Times Sunday Business Section, and numerous popular magazines. His article for The Wall Street Journal, So You’re Afraid To Criticize Your Boss, was selected as one of their 60 best management articles and reprinted in Dow Jones on Management. He has appeared on more than 500 radio and television shows including Oprah, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose, and was the featured expert for 5 consecutive days on The Today Show for their anger management special. His newest book and NY Times Bestseller is Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most You can learn more about Dr. Weisinger and his new empowering E Workshop Experience, Performing Under Pressure at hendrieweisingerphd.com

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