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  • 4 minute Read

How To Use Criticism To Build Stronger Working Relationships

It’s not enough to simply tell someone they need to improve. Here’s how to give feedback that builds people up.

How To Use Criticism To Build Stronger Working Relationships
[Photo: Flickr user Alexandre Dulaunoy]

Recently, when one of our writers asked me about my thoughts on her article, I mentioned that it needed some more work. What I thought was a simple statement snowballed into a major issue.

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She took my feedback personally, believing that I was questioning her skills as a writer. Far from it; she is a great writer, and the article was well-written–it just didn’t have a few points that were important to the argument.

In hindsight, I realize that telling her that the article needed work was not actionable feedback. What was she going to work on? What did I want her to improve? What corrections were necessary? She put a lot of effort into the article and wanted to make sure she knew how to fix it, but I did not provide her with any guidance.

Without clear information and objectivity, criticism is ineffective and potentially harmful.

The Importance of Effective Criticism

In our professional lives, we’re all called upon to give feedback in one form or another. You could be evaluating a junior’s performance, discussing details of strategic importance with your partner, or going through the fine print of a contract with your client. Criticism, when delivered effectively, can boost productivity, shape thought processes and usher in change.

There’s one hitch, though: By nature, human beings are extremely subjective. We overreact, become judgmental and take things personally. When our feelings are projected in this manner, we stop seeing and communicating things the way they actually are. In a recent article in Forbes, behavioral statistician Joseph Folkman writes, “Everyone wants to know the truth, no matter how difficult it is to hear. But even though we want to hear honest and direct feedback, we generally don’t look on those occasions with much joy or pleasure.”

It’s important to deliver constructive criticism in a manner that it is welcomed by your employee or colleague. This becomes especially important when you’re working with a remote team, where proper communication is the glue that holds your working relationship together.

Subjective statements can be interpreted in many ways and can even lead to miscommunication and mistrust within the team. It dilutes the strength of the argument and moves both parties away from the core discussion. Very little good can come from being subjective in feedback.

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If you would truly like your point to hit home and be taken in the right manner, stick to objectivity. Ask yourself why you’re giving feedback–probably to rectify a mistake, improve performance or change behavior. And this can only be accomplished if the criticism is objectively constructed and positively intended.

A 5-Question Framework to Maximize the Impact of Your Feedback

In her article for Time, Annie Murphy Paul offers this advice: “Supply information about what the learner is doing, rather than simply praise or criticism.”

I agree. For maximum effectiveness, focus your input squarely on what needs to be changed. Be very specific and model your feedback on facts. This leaves less scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding.
For instance, when speaking to a designer, it isn’t enough to say that the design is unsatisfactory. Point out details of what you didn’t like. Was the layout off? Did you not like the colors? Is the placement of the call to action button improperly positioned? Maybe the design is not responsive?

At VenturePact, one of our core values is to communicate regularly, clearly, objectively and respectfully. We hold this value highly because we have found that discussions, feedback sessions and meetings are a lot more productive if we closely follow this core value. We are much less likely to have strong negative responses when people are objective and respect each other, and we are less likely to waste people’s time if we communicate openly and regularly.

Now, whenever I give feedback, I ask myself five questions:

  1. Is my feedback clear?
  2. Am I speaking in a way that will make people listen and pay attention? Meaning am I objective and respectful?
  3. Do we have an action plan moving forward to improve on the problem?
  4. Have we decided on a way to assess and track improvements of these attributes?
  5. Have we scheduled a check-in time in the future to review performance?

Following this strategy and not losing sight of VenturePact’s core value helps me and the entire team function better. Instead of dismissing everything you say as a rant, or taking it too personally, your team will work on improving their performance. On your part, you too can sit back knowing that the whole exercise was productive and that you can expect better results the next time around.

Delivering criticism effectively is a skill that can bridge geographical barriers, connect you with your remote team and establish relationships that are productive and long-lasting.

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Randy Rayess is the co-founder of VenturePact, a marketplace that connects companies to prescreened software development firms. He is also a member of Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. You can reach out to him at @randyrayess or on Linkedin.

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