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This Is Why We Default To Criticism (And How To Change)

Our brains and workplace culture have evolved to make criticism easier than constructive feedback, but we can take steps to change.

This Is Why We Default To Criticism (And How To Change)
[Photo: Mike Kononov/Unsplash]

“Susan doesn’t pull her weight. She’s always negative, people don’t like her.”

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“Robert is just incompetent. Why am I asked to do my job well when he gets to skate by?”

“This department would be better off if Beth was fired, everyone knows it, what are you going to do about it?”

Tim Cole, now founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance, used to hear criticism like this regularly in a previous work environment. Tasked with taking over a department he admits had a “septic culture,” Cole stepped into a quagmire of low morale. There was legitimate debate on shutting the operation down,” he explains, “despite the contribution to profitability.”

In the case of this particular team, Cole says the focus on individual contribution eroded teamwork. “Everyone was fighting to beat the employee next to them,” he recalls, “Not only was there ineffective praise, but the default was even more damaging: ‘I win by tearing others down.'”
Although their vitriol is a pretty dramatic example, the urge to critique others and their work (or lack thereof) are far too common.

The Brain Science Of Criticism

Julita Haber, clinical assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Fordham University, points out that focusing on the negative by being quick to criticize and slow to praise has deep roots. “Human tendency for negative bias evolved over time to help our ancestors survive by being responsive to potential threats,” Haber explains. “As such, negative stimuli in our brain are processed almost instantly.” That rapid processing ensures that the criticism will be stored in long-term memory. Positive experiences, on the other hand, have to be held in the brain for at least 12 seconds before they are absorbed in the long-term memory.

The Workplace Evolution Of Criticism

But there are other motivations for knee-jerk criticisms. Wally Adamchik, president of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting, says that managers, in particular, may be quick to call people out. Their job is to add value and make an impact, says Adamchik, and they see criticism as a way to do that. “They are making the bad better and in doing so justifying that position of power and knowledge,” he explains.

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Cathy Littlefield, chair of the business department at Peirce College, adds,”It reminds the employee who is in charge. The power a manager gets from the act of criticizing feeds their ego.” On the other hand, she says people may be uncomfortable giving praise because it shows their vulnerability. Littlefield also notes that while praise can bolster an employee’s sense of worth, it takes some effort to differentiate when someone is simply doing their job and doing something praiseworthy. Therefore, she posits, “It is easy to criticize something that needs improvement, but is it necessary to praise an employee for simply doing their job properly?”

In Cole’s particular situation, he soon learned that the feelings expressed were often just that–feelings. They weren’t based on actual behaviors, he recalls, but more on perceptions and personal dislikes. “People do what they are rewarded to do,” he observes. “Praise and positive affirmation are contagious. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.”

Behind-The-Screen Critics

And that extends to virtual communication. While we are familiar with trolling on Twitter and bullying in Facebook comment threads, such critical takedowns aren’t exclusive to social media. “Because managers are rarely trained on how to provide negative feedback in constructive ways, it’s easy to hide behind email and chat forums,” says Vip Sandhir, CEO and founder, HighGround.

Pam Alfrey Hernandez, founder and president of the HR consulting firm The Right Reflection, observes that people who have self-doubt often over-compensate by maintaining a certain distance from situations and people. “They feel they bring value by being smarter than others,” she says, “finding fault and they end up not offering alternative ways to view situations.”

The urge to default to written communication is especially strong when it’s necessary to tell someone that their performance must improve in some way. Even without the intent to be gratuitously critical. Midge Seltzer, cofounder of Engage PEO, says, “The feedback can be misinterpreted, as often happens in emails.” She explains that it also sends a message that the employee and/or the matter is not important enough to take the extra time to pick up a phone or walk across an office. What’s more, Seltzer says, if email or chat is used often for discipline or coaching then the manager will not be seen as a leader since they are hiding as opposed to addressing the situation head on. “[It’s like] breaking up via a text,” she says.

Turning Criticism Into Constructive Feedback

Of course, turning a quick impulse to criticize into thoughtful constructive feedback takes time and work. Kate Zabriskie, founder and CEO of Business Training Works, says that with the former snap-reaction that follows a situation where there was a fault it is necessary to ask questions that put people in the right frame of mind.  For example, she suggests asking “I want to be sure you are getting what you need from this project. What’s working well for you, and what could I do to make the process smoother?” The focus is on the process and not the person, she points out, and the question also asks the commenter to start with a positive.

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Katina Sawyer, assistant professor of psychology and graduate programs in human resource development at Villanova University, suggests taking a practical and tactile approach using three coins. “Starting each day with three coins in one pocket and switching each one to the other pocket every time you give praise to another employee can triple the amount of encouragement present in the workplace,” she explains.

A lot of the things we criticize about our coworkers are just a matter of different personal style or temperament. HR analyst Laura Handrick, of FitSmallBusiness.com, says it would be better to deal with working with these differences through training, much like what is done for diversity and inclusion. “Often they need someone to provide them with alternative words to be able to coach peers and employees whose work and style are different than their own, and to make that feedback not only constructive but related to the workplace,” she says.

Career coach Carlota Zimmerman says constructive criticism can not only help employees grow, it can make them feel more job satisfaction. “When an underling, for example, takes initiative but makes a mistake, praise them for being bold, and help them see their mistake,” she says. This is especially true if you’re the boss. “For most of us, support from our boss is as important if not more than money.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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