To Criticise or Not?
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
A lot has been written about the best way to give feedback. There is no single best way to do this, and it will depend on the situation. But I do think there is a wrong way and I would like to give you my own personal thoughts on this.
Over the last few years there seems to have been a shift towards people favouring the direct and plain speaking approach to feedback. People often tell me that they say what they feel, and being direct is something they are proud of. The other day someone told me not to be offended if they come across as rude because they "just say it as it is". This seemed such a strange thing to say - if you know you are being rude you should do something about it.
Sometimes a straightforward and no nonsense approach to communication is needed. If someone is acting unprofessionally or unethically then this needs to be dealt with quickly and firmly. But the majority of time this is not the best approach to feedback, particularly if your intention is to help a person grow in confidence and work to the best of their potential.
What I want to examine is why direct and forthright feedback is often not the best way. This undoubtedly goes against most of the current opinion, but I have personally never come across anyone who has really benefited from straight talking. I know a lot of people who say they want to be told in a no nonsense manner when they have done something wrong, or when they could have performed better. But every time I have seen this done, there has always been shock, disappointment or denial. In reality, nobody actually likes being told when they've done something wrong. So it is best to give feedback with consideration of the other person's feelings.
The scenarios where I see the most harm being done with criticism is during meetings or calls with multiple people attending. This is where we need to be most careful with how we act and treat other people, and it takes real confidence and maturity to get it right. I know from experience that when you are in a meeting with lots of people, you want to shine and look good in front of everyone else.
I remember during one of my first work trips to the US I was so desperate to be recognised and seen as someone clever in front of my colleagues, that I was constantly trying to outsmart everyone else's comments.
This in itself was a pretty immature thing to do, but I'm sure it also stopped people from speaking, worried that I would try and show them up.
I think it shows great leadership and confidence to let others speak first and restrain yourself from pushing all your opinions right from the start. Supporting other people is the pinnacle of leadership. The person in charge doesn't know all the answers and their role is to get the best out of their team.
Recently I was on the receiving end of some criticism. I was on a zoom call and made a suggestion about the way to launch a new product. One of the other people on the call immediately jumped in and told me it wasn't a good idea, and continued by listing all the reasons he disagreed. This naturally didn't make me feel particularly good, and I was reluctant to say anything else during the meeting. What I've come to learn over the years is that very rarely does someone say anything stupid on purpose. So even if it is the most pointless suggestion in the world, it was given in good faith. So on that basis alone you should think twice before you criticise.
There is also a high likelihood that this person had a particular reason for speaking up. It is therefore a good idea to ask them why they suggested this point of view. Maybe they have thought of something you hadn't considered. Or they could have some unique insight or experience in this matter. When I was working as a Project Manager at the BBC I would often lead meetings with different teams and departments. There was one team who had some very loud and opiniated members, and it was often difficult to get the shyer people to contribute. There was one quieter member of the team who would find it difficult to be heard. So I would always ask her opinion at the end of the meeting when the noisy ones had tired themselves out. On more than one occasion she made a suggestion that initially got dismissed by her more assertive colleagues. But when I asked her to explain in more detail, it soon became clear that she had been listening intently, processed all the information and had come up with an idea that was better than anything else that had been proposed.
What this story highlights is that ideas should never be dismissed straight away. That's not to say all ideas will be great or worth pursuing, but they should always be considered, and certainly not shouted down by the more confident people.
Another reason we should never immediately criticise and dismiss ideas came from my time as a Business Analyst. On one occasion we were working on a new TV scheduling system, and were putting together a list of our requirements. We had a great team and everybody was giving each other space to talk. One of the developers made a suggestion, that on the surface, felt quite impracticable. And as we probed deeper it became clear that the original idea was not feasible. But, as we talked about it more, the idea then evolved into something a little bit different until we had produced a really innovative new concept.
And all of this came out of one idea that could have easily been dismissed if we had been more direct and blunt.
Creativity, innovation and change come about from the recognition and permission to try something different. If we are constantly worried about being criticised, it will stifle any original thinking. So feedback should always be given with care and consideration. This does not, of course, mean that you should never tell people the truth - you want people to grow and get better. But it is much better to nurture people through encouragement than discouraging people through criticism.