The Problem with Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism sounds like a good concept, a more or less neutral way of delivering negative feedback. In reality constructive criticism is often only the latter: criticism. There’s not much constructive about it, as there are very few people who ever truly learn from negative feedback.

According to this Harvard Business Review blog post, there are three things wrong with constructive criticism:

  1. We often give feedback when we feel our own value is at risk;
  2. We don’t take the other person’s value into account when we give feedback;
  3. We assume we’re right about what we’re about to say.

I’d like to add a few thoughts to this. I think constructive criticism often goes wrong because it’s dished out at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.

The wrong time for feedback

There’s such a thing as the wrong time for constructive criticism, when we’re feeling attacked for instance. When we feel like it’s personal, like someone is attacking us, it’s usually not a good time to give feedback. We’re too emotional, too involved. We need to step away from our emotions first and allow our ratio to take over.

Another timing issue is when we wait too long. If you wait too long, negative feedback is useless. People won’t remember the exact facts, details will have gotten lost and you can’t have an honest conversation that way anymore. And what’s the point anyway, it’s not like you can change the past, do anything to correct mistakes after the fact. If you want to confront someone, do it as soon as possible.

The wrong reason for feedback

When it’s about us, not them, there’s something wrong with our reason for giving feedback. Sometimes what we think of someone else’s actions has everything to do with us and very little with them.

One of my ‘red buttons’ is when someone tells me what to do, when someone makes decisions for me. I hate it when people do that. But criticizing them for that is more about me than it is about something they did wrong.

Before you say anything, take a few minutes to question yourself. Why do you perceive the other person’s actions as negative? Are they really something worth of criticism, or do you experience them in such a way because of something you feel or think?

The wrong way for feedback

We always have to think of the other person when we give constructive criticism. It’s easy to say that ‘they’ll just have to learn to deal with it’, but in reality it doesn’t work like that.

Take some time to think about what you know about the other person before you confront him or her. What do you know about this person? How will they take your feedback? Is there anything you can do to soften the blow, to make them more open to it, to lessen the chance of them getting hurt?

The goal isn’t just to give criticism. The goal is to give constructive criticism, to give feedback in such a way that it will actually be helpful.

A second thought is what the HBR blog post wrote: when we give negative feedback, we often assume we’re right. But who says we are? What we have seen, heard or witnessed may be only a fraction of a bigger picture. I love the suggestions the author of the HBR post gives:

“Here’s the story I’m telling myself about what just happened,” we might say. “Have I got that right, or am I missing something?”

What can you do to make your criticism truly constructive? Do you take the other person’s value into account when you give feedback?

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Rachel Blom
Rachel Blom has been involved in youth ministry in different roles since 1999, both as a volunteer as on staff. She simply loves teens and students and can't imagine her life without them. In youth ministry, preaching and leadership are her two big passions. Her focus right now is providing daily practical training through www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com to help other youth leaders grow and serve better in youth ministry. She resides near Munich in the south of Germany with her husband and son. You can visit Rachel at www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com