Not long ago I was visiting with one of my clients named Steve, who is a managing director of a major NYC financial firm. Steve mentioned to me that he wanted to explore some ways in which he might influence a work environment where transparent, open, and honest communication prevails between departments and key individuals. He confided that he sensed an unhealthy state of guarded communication and growing distrust among some key people and he wasn’t sure how to nip it in the bud.
In response I asked Steve where criticism fits in his communication spectrum of openness. “In the spirit of being transparent,” he said, “I never thought about it. But isn’t that something that should be discouraged?”
Steve isn’t alone in his ambition to promote an open and transparent work environment. Nor is he alone in failing to link transparency to how employees deal with criticism, which can mean the difference between having a championship team or one that simply survives.
Because criticism can be hurtful, it’s no wonder that most of us in the workplace are criticism averse or at least fearful of it. We were never taught by parents or educators that giving and receiving criticism is a skill that once learned can be our most powerful communication tool for creating the kind of change that advances our goals and desires in relationships.
As much as we may think it is something that should be avoided, all of us know that criticism is occasionally necessary even though it carries with it the risk of jeopardizing harmony in a relationship. It is that risk in giving criticism that needs to be minimized in order to make it work to everyone’s advantage.
Removing much of that risk is a matter of education. By teaching employees the skills associated with giving and receiving criticism, organizations will find, first, that it is not that complicated and they will soon see results that are astoundingly beneficial for creating an atmosphere of harmony and improved performance. Just as they invest time and well spent dollars in training employees in other types of communications such as how to sell, make presentations or how to negotiate, so too would companies benefit greatly by teaching mangers and employees the simple skills involved in delivering and receiving corrective information.
Nevertheless, rather than providing instruction in giving and receiving criticism, many organizations simply paint over the word criticism insisting that it be called something else, like “feedback,” “negative feedback,” “crucial conversations,” or even “coaching moments.” But masquerading it with another label does little to create an understanding of the crucial role criticism can play in everyday communication and how it can actually be the link to promoting change, getting results, influencing others, and promoting trust and respect.
Criticism is not the same as feedback. Feedback can be both positive and negative and by definition is simply the return of information regarding an act of some kind. Nowhere in feedback is there an expressed or implied need for making a necessary change in one’s behavior, as with criticism. Furthermore, with criticism, failure to take some kind of action on the part of the receiver can have real or imagined consequences. This is where its real differences lie in distinguishing it from other words.
When creating a program designed to educate employees in the proper use of criticism, there are some simple basics, which need to be realized and underscored. Namely, the only kind of criticism that givers should engage in is helpful criticism. If a giver can’t show how the criticism is meant to be helpful, givers should simply never give it.
Receivers need to be trained to recognize and be open to helpful criticism. They need to learn that it is the receiver, not the giver, who is actually in control during the criticism exchange.
You read that right. Surprisingly, even though the giver may initiate the conversation, once the criticism is delivered the control shifts to the receiver. If receivers are not utilizing their control effectively, they can derail a well-meaning attempt by givers.
For helpful criticism to result in positive outcomes, there must exist the ingredient of positive intent from the standpoint of the giver and open receptivity on the part of the receiver. Also, both givers and receivers need to learn how to decipher whether a criticism is within the bounds of a particular relationship, determine who is the best person to deliver the criticism, and most importantly, be able to go beyond the facts and accurately assess the real issue.
Once people become acquainted with the skills involved in its use, criticism decouples from its disputatious stigma and becomes a tool for bolstering morale, fostering trust and respect, breeding institutional honesty, and most importantly, advancing the success of a project or mission.
Today’s leaders need to view the proper application of criticism as a priority for improving the workplace atmosphere where everyday communications are exquisite and accurately communicated, and where employees operate with no blind spots and are able to develop themselves fully and hold themselves accountable.
The key to achieving that objective is by creating a workforce who understands and uses the easily learned skills of giving and receiving of criticism.
—Deb Bright, EdD, is author of The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt (AMACOM). She is also founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. To learn more about Deb Bright, visit her website.