Making Criticism a Positive Experience


In all my years managing people no one has ever asked me to criticize them. Sure, I’ve been asked for my opinion, but criticism is viewed as a bad thing. People tend to want to avoid criticism and get defensive when it comes their way. Yet it really doesn’t need to be that way.

There was a time early in my career when I received rather harsh and insensitive… we’ll call it, feedback from a superior. I vowed that day when my time came to be the boss, I would never be insensitive or bludgeon people with my criticism. Of course, corrections need to be made; however, they can be done so in a manner that preserves the recipient’s dignity and in a way that growth can be achieved.

We recently hosted a session of ExecuNet Master Class on this subject. Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, the originator of highly regarded techniques of criticism training, shared his approach in The Art and Science of Giving and Receiving Criticism. Dr. Weisinger showed how to convert the everyday process of giving and receiving criticism from an often-destructive encounter into a positive experience for everyone involved. The class reminded me of my vow that day and refreshed my thinking on the topic.

Here are some of the helpful tips I picked up from the class:

Criticism is an interaction. How you give criticism can influence how it is received. To criticize effectively, you have to be a strategic criticizer. You must always assume they will get defensive and have a plan for what you say next. “Use a person’s defensiveness as a cue to yourself that YOU are being ineffective with your delivery,” said Dr. Weisinger.

Do not criticize people for things they cannot change. Expectations must be realistic and fluid.

Remember that criticism is a sharing of opinions; it’s very subjective. Offer criticism with an improvement-oriented mindset. Your goal is to foster improvement, not to attack for not doing it how you would have. To make your suggestions productive, move the criticism into the future with words like “next time.” This approach tells the listener you trust them to improve.

Remember the merits without the “But.” Lead with the positives and state areas for improvement. Do not transition from the positives to the areas for improvement with the word “but.” Doing so only serves to negate the positives you just voiced. Better is to simply say “… and here’s how I think it can be even better.”

Use questions Socratically: Ask questions that the person answers for themself and comes up with exactly what you want them to focus their attention on. People are receptive to information when they discover the answer for themselves.

Most interestingly, Dr. Weisinger states that the timing of criticism is as important as the delivery, and those effective at providing criticism position what they say so that the receiver wants to hear it. These masters of the art of criticism have a motivational theory: they illuminate what’s in it for the person they’re speaking to – without threats and by using their language for better understanding.

Criticism isn’t a bad thing… it’s simply an opportunity to interact and grow. People with good self-esteem want this. The program was filled with practical, real-world examples of how to better interact – at home and at work. One member who attended the class commented: “Excellent material that can help anyone in every area of your life.” I couldn’t agree more and highly recommend you check it out ondemand.

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson is ExecuNet's president and chief economist. An Arjay Miller Scholar, Mark received his MBA from Stanford University and a BA in economics from Yale University. He joined ExecuNet in 1993, with extensive marketing and new product and business development experience, having served as president and founder of A&M Associates, an investment management firm. Mark's corporate leadership experience includes several senior marketing and financial positions with RCA Global Communications (a GE subsidiary) and American Can Company.

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