The Art of Criticism – Employee Engagement

Just back off please

Ok, I’m putting it out there – I don’t like being criticised. It’s human nature, so if you don’t like that, don’t tell me unless you want a sour reaction. Your criticism challenges my personal belief system, most importantly my belief about myself and my world and I have worked hard to create my little utopia.

When constructive becomes destructive

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????We all work hard to construct our personal belief about ourselves – who are we, and what effect our actions and capabilities have on that? That concept of our identity is like a barrier for our emotional security: anything attacking our sense of emotional security has to get through that belief. It could be a solid brick wall of certainty that takes one heck of a wrecking-ball-type ordeal to get through, or it could be fragile enough to be shattered with a well-aimed insult, either way, the result is destructive.

I am not personally a fan of truckloads of constructive criticism. I don’t think a manager’s role is to critique every breath we take. If the continual critique is simply a platform for a manager to extol the virtues of their myriads of experience, then I would rather work it out by myself. The main aim of constructive criticism should be the fine tuning of an engine to keep things humming.

Act now or regret it

“…criticism is one of the most important tasks a manager has. Yet it is also one of the most dreaded and put off.” (Goleman, Pg 151)

Managers must understand the importance of constructive criticism and the manner in which it is delivered. As a manager, your ability to critique is as critical as is your ability to gracefully receive criticism. It’s important to deliver critique gently and positively, but concisely and in a timely fashion. Few of us enjoy conflict and we tend to avoid these seemingly difficult conversations. This results in issues, often behaviours, becoming habitual and considered consensual as a result of our apparent indifference.

In the book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, Goleman describes the damage resulting from poorly delivered critique:

… too many managers have poorly mastered the crucial art of feedback. This deficiency has a great cost: just as the emotional health of a couple depends on how well they air their grievances, so do the effectiveness, satisfaction, and productivity of people at work depend on how they are told about nagging problems. Indeed, how criticisms are given and received goes a long way in determining how satisfied people are with their work, with those they work with, and with those to whom they are responsible.” (Goleman, Pg 151)

Indeed in a study of 108 managers and white collar workers, inept criticism was ahead of mistrust, personality struggles, and disputes over power and pay as a reason for conflict on the job. (Goleman, Pg 151)

I can give it, just can’t take it

Can I give you some constructive criticism, would that be okay? If you are inept at artful critique you are likely adding more cost to the business than you are aware. It’s the silent whittling down of Employee Engagement and the associated lost opportunity you should fear. Take some time to skill up in this crucial area. The people in your company are the engine of your business. Would you go to a mechanic who didn’t know how to service your car?

In referring to a study on criticism where participants received one of two prearranged criticisms, Goleman says:

“…those who were attacked became tense and angry and antagonistic, saying they would refuse to collaborate or cooperate on future projects with the person who gave the criticism. Many indicated they would want to avoid contact altogether…

The harsh criticism made those who received it so demoralized that they no longer tried as hard at their work and, perhaps most damaging, said they no longer felt capable of doing well. The personal attack was devastating to their morale.” (Goleman, Pg 151)

The important fact is, we cannot operate and we cannot improve without critique, which is an outsider’s input on how to improve. We have to learn to give it effectively and to receive it with grace. It’s how we are bumped back on line and back into focus.

In the end, I am an optimist above all else

Well-delivered critique leaves the recipient with a sense of optimism. Martin Selligman, in his book Learned Optimism, shows us that setbacks and failures are a result of situations and circumstances that we can actually do something about. If we know we can do something about an undesirable situation, we can approach it with optimism. It is important that the critique focuses on what has happened and what can happen. Focussing on the opportunity is the positive that enables the change in behaviour that will ultimately deliver the desired result.

Key points for well-delivered critique include:

Be specific

A statement of facts (delivered sensitively of course) is important in reaching a mutual understanding of the deficient behaviour or performance. If this is a workplace discussion, it is important to reach this position without attaching emotions, though not necessarily easy. Broad generalisations of deficient behaviours in the critique conversation are ineffective and in fact do more harm than good. Equally and interestingly, Goleman tells us that by and large, broad generalisations in a praise conversation are also ineffective.

If this is a personal issue, then sensitively attaching emotions may be appropriate when done carefully. In this case, it’s important to clearly state your understanding of the problem, to indicate how it makes you feel and to suggest what could be changed.

Provide solutions

We are all blessed with a natural talent to criticise our fellow man/woman and we all exercise that talent with monotonous regularity and enthusiasm, but it is the truly gifted amongst us who can take it one step further and offer solutions. The solutions are often as simple as outlining, describing, demonstrating and modelling desired outcomes, like behaviours. If you don’t have a solution or can’t see hope of a solution, then don’t expect the recipient to perform miracles. If you walk away from a discussion, leaving the recipient with no hope of a solution, then in all likelihood you will leave the recipient frustrated, demoralised and disengaged.

Be present

All this modern technology is wonderful stuff, but it’s not the place for one of these discussions. These discussions are for good old fashioned face-to-face communication. This allows the deliverer to gauge the recipient’s response and to manage the discussion dynamically. Most of us are uncomfortable with this management challenge and that’s only natural. I am not saying there is something wrong with you if you like critiquing people’s performance, but you’d agree it’s unusual. Being present also means being in the moment. Sure, you need to rehearse discussions and consider all possible outcomes of a difficult conversation, but being present means responding to the twists and turns and unexpected clarifications in a sensible manner and with empathy.

Like all challenging conversations, it’s important to plan. In the book ‘Difficult Conversations – How to discuss what matters most’ the authors, (Patton, Stone and Heen), provide a methodology called CALM. The CALM method is a great way to frame your preparation and approach to providing critique.

Clarify. What are the facts? What does it look like from their perspective? Make sure you really understand the situation, preferably as an independent third party would see it. Put yourself in their shoes and see what that feels like.

Address. Take responsibility. Avoid excuses. Get emotions and feelings out in the open. Offer amends.

Listen. Practice active Listening. Listen to hear and understand and acknowledge what you hear (with sincerity). Be conscious of your own and their body language (what does that say about each of you?).

Manage. Focus on solutions. Avoid assigning blame by focusing on how misunderstandings occurred and agree on courses of action with ‘win-win’ outcomes.

Be sensitive

Mustering some empathy for the recipient is critical. Critiques that are delivered like a left hook to the sternum won’t just wind the recipient, but will likely leave permanent damage: resentment, bitterness, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Your choice is to address issues as they arise in a constructive manner. To acknowledge your job is to fine tune a complex living engine full of all sorts of emotional and procedural dynamics. If you avoid this task, you risk an engine running roughly, perhaps using too much energy for the output you’re receiving, or even breaking down. Take on the task with sensitivity, with clarity and providing solutions and support, and you’ll be up on the winner’s podium.


  • ·         Goleman, D 2006, Emotional Intelligence, 10th Edn, Random House, New York
  • ·         Patton, Stone, Heen, 2011, Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most, Penguin Books, London
  • ·         Seligman, M.E.P, 1990, Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Vintage Books, USA

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  1. stephanie kiem says

    This is a great blog post. You have brilliantly summed it up. Feedback is crucial to growth and so many people don’t develop those skills that are required to both give and receive feedback in a way that leads to positive outcomes. I think the key thing for us all is that this is a skill that must be learnt and practiced. It is not easy but it really important.

  2. says

    Thanks Stephanie. I couldn’t agree more. It is a fundamental skill required by managers and really anyone focussed on their development in the workplace. For some, its a natural talent, and for others it’s a skill that must be aquired through training and practise. It isn’t easy as you say. It requires patience and it requires sensitivity. Thanks for your comment.


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