There aren’t many things in the workplace I hate more than the phrase “constructive criticism.”
This is a topic near and dear to my heart. A leader’s attitude towards “criticism” is one of the key factors in producing happiness in leadership and success for all your team mates.
For too long, we’ve been buying into the managing strategies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Back then, you’d be told directly: Hey! You suck at this. Fix your behavior now, or you’re fired.
Then in the 80s, we realized that people have feelings. We need to say the same thing, but couch it and hide under a positive and kinder nature.
Cut the crap. It’s all the same thing.
There’s a better way, and I love speaking and helping others on this topic.
Instead of focusing on constructive criticism in the workplace, we’re going to learn about leading from a safe place.
Constructive criticism has been around for decades, but it fosters an attitude of boss vs. team mate. Instead, we need to think about choosing better wording for how we approach feedback and work together as a team against the incorrect behaviors or inappropriate results.
Let’s break down this emotionally-charged topic and be better, my friends.
Breaking Down Constructive Criticism
What is constructive criticism? What do people mean when they use this phrase?
Look at each word.
This means what’s being given to you is meant to make you better and improve.
Great! I love making myself and my workers better.
I’m going to criticize you.
I’m going to make judgement and evaluations on who you are as a worker and a person.
I’m going to make you better by making you feel like crap. I’ll get you all defensive, but I’m speaking nicely while I’m doing it.
Don’t you feel better?
I hate the word criticism.
Call it whatever you want, there are many names for this, and they all fail to do the right thing.
My Own Experience With Constructive Criticism
My first service business ran for 24 years with success. I started with the same beliefs as many of you: Constructive criticism was the way to go.
But I hated it personally, and my team mates did too.
Over time and reflection, I turned it into what we call our Team Member Communication Form.
As I did so, the whole workplace attitude began to change.
This was tough for me at first, and I even had a clear cut experience with how criticism affected people.
In The Army
When I was in the army, I learned early on to fly under the radar.
There wasn’t a reward, in fact, you got extra (often negative) attention for being the best. You sure as hell didn’t want to be at the bottom of the pack either.
To succeed in the military, you did best by being in the middle.
When we went for 5-mile runs, we avoided being first and last.
The criticism and the boss vs. worker mentality stifled people’s best qualities.
There are two normal reactions to this type of workplace.
I learned one from a friend of mine, another Private. He was from the city, and he hated this divisive and bossy attitude.
He fought with our instructors and was taken to task over and over again.
I come from a small southern state and didn’t want that attention either. So I hid my best work to avoid the focus on my “bosses” altogether.
Is this the kind of workplace we as leaders want?
Do we want to be at odds with our workers?
Do we want to stifle their potential in a culture of nervousness and fear?
I don’t, and I bet you don’t either. But the way you handle feedback may be doing just that.
How Do You Feel About Constructive Criticism As A Leader?
You don’t have to poll your team mates to see how this works in action.
Just think about how you feel when you criticize your team mates.
How do you feel when you have to have those “difficult conversations?”
During the process, people take criticism personally. It’s just part of who we are.
Though, Don Miguel Ruiz and his book, The 4 Agreements, take on this problem and challenge us to agree not to take things personally.
This is tough to do, so let’s be aware of it.
As leaders, we take things personally about ourselves and our business.
Team mates take things like criticism even more personally.
Are you tiptoeing around the hard discussions?
Do your team mates fear evaluations?
If so, you’re failing them.
Consider this example from my own life, friends because I’ve been there with you.
Does This Sound Familiar?
As a boss, I’ve called people into my office countless times over the years. A lot of it was for good things, some more like nudges in the right direction, and some just plain tough discussions.
Earlier in my career, I started noticing things like this.
There was this one team mate, let’s call him Jack. Jack was a fine team mate, but every time I’d call him in my office to tell him anything, he’d get so nervous.
It was so uncomfortable to speak with him. Many times he’d even ask me outright if he was losing his job.
At first, I just laughed it off as his nervous personality, but then I started reflecting.
There were other team mates who when they’d get called in would make jokes about getting fired or this being the “end of the road.”
Yeah, it was a joke, but all jokes and responses have some element of truth behind them.
I looked at how my team mates were reacting and noticed they seemed to fear and be uncomfortable with these discussions.
On further reflection, I realized I was too.
This wasn’t right. Something had to change.
Turns out, it was my attitude towards constructive criticism.
Constructive Criticism In The Workplace: What Should It Mean To You?
I’ve said before, I’ve learned to dislike the word “criticism.”
If you know me, you know I don’t believe in failure. When there is a “failure”, it’s really quitting on someone’s part.
In many of my books including my change books, I write I don’t believe in failure, I believe in results.
Even more, I don’t believe in criticism. I believe in feedback.
I’ll say that once more and louder for the cheap seats in the back:
I don’t believe in criticism. I believe in feedback.
This is why I’ve switched to a Team Member Communication Form over criticism or evaluations.
We are a team!
Criticism is about division. Me vs. you. I’m judging and fixing you.
It’s like we were dropped onto a court, and we’re volleying back and forth against one another. Me trying to fix you, and you trying to defend yourself.
This isn’t right.
Instead, let’s be on the same team!
Let’s play handball or something where we’re both working together against the wall. Now, we’re working together on changing the behavior or the results (the wall), not the team mate as a person.
Your team is watching every single thing you do (and don’t do).
Your actions and words are a huge part of how they approach feedback, and honestly, your words and actions affect your own attitude.
Let’s work together as people to better each other.
I have a team of speakers and coaches, and we give each other feedback after every event. It’s not about judgment, it’s about helping each other improve the results.
Yes, even the tough calls and discussions can be this way.
Although pro-tip, make sure you use your form to track everything to protect yourself as an employer if you must part ways with the worker (especially in California).
Be more aware as a leader.
I’ve written and spoken on this topic too.
Learn about the steps and exercises to help you be a mindful leader.
When you work together and get on the same team, everyone works more effectively, and “the talks” become just another way to become better people.
The homework for this topic is simple but important.
As I mentioned before, friends, how you lead and offer feedback is key for how your team mates handle it and improve.
Look At Your Feedback Form Language
Take an honest look at the forms you use for communicating and tracking team mate behavior and results.
Write down the name of the form you use and the language you’ve chosen to include in the form.
Here are some common ones many companies use:
- Write-up form
- Feedback form
- Team Member Communication Form
- Evaluation Form
Think about the names and language on your form. How do you think your team mates or you would react if someone filled one of these out about your performance?
Think about the emotions you inspire when you tell someone they’re getting written up vs. receiving a feedback form.
You may not want to use the form you currently have.
Great! As a leader, now it’s your job to come up with something new.
Reflect On Your Own Feelings
Ask yourself: How do you feel when you go to run one of these meetings?
If you find yourself dreading these meetings, this is a big clue that something is wrong about how you’re doing it.
You don’t have to look forward to talking about the hard topics (such as when an team mate does something inappropriate), but you should be looking for solutions together rather than giving into the me vs. them mentality.
If this is you, it’s time to change your mindset and how you handle giving feedback to your workers.
Constructive criticism in the workplace is an 80s idea that tried to take into account how people feel about being told how they’re doing.
It’s a step up from the old ways of threatening and firing, but it’s not enough.
Think about giving feedback on results.
Think about being on a team with your team mate against a poor result or behavior.
This divisive attitude leads down the path of an unproductive and fearful workplace environment.
But you can be better, and you ARE better.
If you like the stuff you read here, be sure to check out our podcast by clicking the link.
I’ll see you when I see you.
About Kenny Chapman
Kenny Chapman’s mission is to help driven leaders build their ideal lives and careers (even if they don’t know what that looks like yet). He is an award-winning authority on helping people discover their true potential and make the simple, though not always easy, necessary changes.
Kenny is a professionally trained speaker, consultant, columnist, author of The Six Dimensions of Change 2.0 and In-Home Sales Acceleration, and host of the Leadership in a Nutshell podcast. He is an entrepreneur at heart, building multiple successful companies, most recently the Blue Collar Success Group. His teachings have inspired individuals worldwide to reshape their lives and organizations, creating sustainable change, happiness, and personal fulfillment.